Fantasia Review: The Hundred Year Old Man Who…

For all of us who feel Robert Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump is a sentimental, condescending insult to cinema audiences everywhere, and Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is not a helluvalot better, we finally have an entry into ‘the man who bumbles through history’ nano-genre to call our own. Do not let the maladroit title fool you, Felix Herngren’s big screen adaptation of the bestselling novel by Jonas Jonasson, is a Swiss fucking watch in the plotting department, and savagely amusing in its come-what-may temperament. it sneaks up on you in similar ways as Jo Nesbo’s Headhunters even as it dazzles with the sweep of history.

After a tone-setting and highly unfortunate incident involving a sweet kitty, a hungry fox and a bundle of dynamite, one of cinemas strangest heroes, Allan Karlsson, finds himself confined to a retirement home on the eve his centenary year on this little planet called Earth. The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared (hereafter The Hundred Year Old Man) is the delightfully absurd story of our eponymous very senior citizen who does indeed bail out the open glass portal of his tiny room right on the day while the nurses are attempting to count and light all those candles on his marzipan cake, but it is also the story of us as a conflicted and nutty species.

In surprisingly good health, and armed with only the simple intention of hopping on the nearest train to anywhere; or as the case may be, nowhere, which we will learn, is a highly underrated place to be. But due to a comical bit of mishap-ery involving an angry skinhead and a tiny train station bathroom, Karlsson finds himself in possession of a large suitcase full of money. With any found bag of money, comes pursuit and here it is in the form Swedish biker thugs and an angry British gangster shouting at them in Bali. In short order, we find Karlsson, in his rather zen and unhurried fashion (“life is what it is, and does what it does”), travelling across the Swedish countryside, gathering an odd collection of friends, another old man who lives in an abandoned train station (and possibly the only resident of a town called Byringe) and a 35 year old student who perhaps as the largest number of University credits on the planet (in his own words he is “almost a lot of things”.) Friendship is cool, but they are also more than a little interested in the 50 million euros that Karlsson is carting around.

Just when think you have Karl figured out, he pops someone over the head and ships their corpse to Egypt, so, suffice it to say, the film keeps you on your toes in terms of plot and character.

If it were only the criminal confusion, clueless coppers and comic coincidence with a growing body count, The Hundred Year Old Man would more or less be a Guy Ritchie flick (note: Alan Ford, who played Brick Top in Snatch here is the London baddie in Bali), albeit with a drier Swedish humour. But things get interesting, expensive and very explosive as we flash back to Karlsson’s unique and pathologically significant life. He accidentally saved Franco from a bridge demolition in the Spanish Civil War, contributed to both the American and Russian nuclear bomb program, almost single handedly starting the cold war, and comically might have been key in ending it by catching Ronald Reagan at the wrong moment. The movie, dripping with that special kind of Scandinavian wit, offers an entirely human-nature bit of revisionism as to why the Berlin Wall was torn down.

A life lived well, not straining too hard against the universe, and simply letting things happen, it covers nearly the entire breadth of the 20th century history. These flashback vignettes are invigorating, absurd and violent, just as the details of history, are if you are close to the ground. All Karlsson has ever wanted to do during these historic moments is have a drink, do some work and take the occasional photo, but that doesn’t stop his life from being swept into many crazy situations involving cocktails, cossack dancing with Josef Stalin, clandestine trips in U-Boats, imprisonment in a Siberian Gulag with Albert Einstein’s clueless brother, Herbert. Even a throwaway job having lunch while building the Empire State Building (watch for the hammer!) yields effortless comic timing.

The Hundred Year Old Man winningly posits that we are all photographers of our own lives; our memories and experiences can be futilely sculpted into something that is just as transient as something a little more shapeless with markedly less stress and more time to have a nip of vodka and simply allow things to happen. If the film offers advice, it is this: Watch the road while you are driving. Be careful where you pee. Don’t shoot a pistol at a Elephant. And, there is always a tomorrow, so, keep your your head up and we’ll see you next Wednesday.

Fantasia Review: Time Lapse

Opening with a shot of swirling red paint, which then has tiny flecks of white thrown into the mixture to disturb the surface and complicate the image, Bradley King and B.P. Cooper’s Time Lapse shows just how bloody far you can go with a tiny budget, a great prop and two locations. The script here is a beauty, that finds new ways to look at time travel causality (or rather the dangers of perceived causality) along with the good old genre standby of the ‘big bag of money’ landing in your lap. To prove they are the real deal, the film also diligently delves into trust-issues that develop amongst friends when a morally questionable opportunity in life presents itself.

At twenty everyone wants to be and artist, and Finn (Matt O’Leary looking absolutely nothing like spectacled teen The Brain from Brick anymore) is struggling to live the dream. His day job as superintendent of Sycamore Apartments entails fixing old ladies blocked toilets, and competes as a distraction to overcoming a nasty case of creative blockage with his pill-popping, dog-race obsessed room-mate, Jasper (George Finn), and his not-quite-nagging-but-still-neglected girlfriend Callie (Danielle Panabaker) and her subtle pleas for attention.

Three three of them, very broke, spend most their time sitting in their living room staring out the window with concern for their futures, which are stalled as much as Finn’s blank canvasses. The situation radically changes when one elderly tenant (a cameoing John Rhys-Davies who is looking decidedly like Salman Rushdie these days) stops picking up his mail and a plethora of parking tickets begin to accumulate on the window of his car. Finn, as the resident super, is obligated to see if he is OK. Inside the apartment, the three roommates discover the biggest camera they have ever seen; the size of a VW beetle and bolted to the floor. This along with hundreds of polaroids taped to the wall in a diligent, kind of serial killer fashion. That the photos are all of their living room across the way, is of greater concern than the the few absent spaces on the wall.

They also find a lab book which outlines the nature of the large contraption: it can take photos about 24 hours in to the future. Greater cause for thought is why it the camera lens pointed into their living room, and hmmm, is that tomorrows dog race winners taped to the window and a new Finn painting on the canvass in the most current photo? You know, the snapshot of tomorrow…

Greed and the potential freedom to pursue their future trumps any concerns of invading their neighbours privacy (or, for that matter, why he was invading theirs with his time machine test protocols.) Things are also quickly brought to a head when they spot their neighbours weirdly charred corpse nearby. Did he die because he violated the images dictated in the polaroids from future? Or perhaps being too close to whatever possible radiation that the machine gives off? Nope, definitely the former.

Before you can say Shallow Grave, the three of them are off to the races, literally and figuratively and conspicuously enough to draw the curiosity of Jasper’s thuggish bookie. And a now daily struggle with the clock and the impossible to ignore tomorrow-photos that show Callie cheating on Finn with Jasper in plain sight in the living room. There is also a deluge of exciting canvass work done by Finn.

The three of them now trapped by matching their reality to the photos, creates a horrific, Cassandra Complex nightmare inflected by the best of those classic Twilight Zone episodes. Finn is now forced to make copies of his own future paintings that he sees in the photos, Callie forced to kiss Jasper for the camera in front of her boyfriend, all to save their lives from causality-death and pay their intimidating gangster boss. The camera lens becomes a deaths head from the adjacent apartment, a beast that needs to be fed the future is spits out every 24 hours.

Dominated by clocks and spirals, the browns of wood panelling and cheap student furniture bathed in green glow of metaphysical hell, Time Lapse, presents a new mystery of circumstance for its now unwilling victims to solve every day to save their lives. Or possibly playing poor fools for attempting to live up to the events in these almost context-free polaroids. The movie might sag a tiny bit in the middle as characters are getting tied up and weapons are broken out in the tiny abode (other stand-by in low budget genre thrillers) but like a great science fiction short story, those ones with a pristine core idea, it saves the real goods for the closing act, where playing with the established rules in ways that are clever consistent yield brilliant results. This is always a tricky mix for any movie that deals with the paradoxes of time travel, and the director and a game cast pull it off in spades.

Ultimately a lesson here (as with any good roommate drama) is that trust amongst friends or for that matter, enemies, would solve a lot of problems, stabilize a lot of delicate situations, and strengthen relationships to build a quality common future. Or, perhaps more importantly, don’t fuck with time.

Fantasia Review: The Harvest

After a very lengthy hiatus into directing for TV, ranging from single episodes for John From Cincinnati to Masters of Horror, John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer) is back with his first feature film since the turn of the century. Most people will recall the hysterically trashy noir from the late 1990s, Wild Things, the one that featured then popular starlets Neve Campbell and Denise Richards have a lengthy spot of erotic mingling; I believe they also showed the world Kevin’s Bacon.

He chooses a painterly, often cloying, small town Americana vibe in The Harvest, such that it first appears that the director has taken up the mantle of restrained, simple drama — to the point of somnambulism, but gradually, and with care, the film builds into full blow horror hysteria. Good things come to those who wait.

In the small town of Russet, USA, a doctor – nurse married couple are caring for their wheelchair bound young son Andy (Charlie Tahan) at their home. They have built for him the perfect bedroom, full of pristine looking toys and vibrant wallpaper and state of the moment electronics. The caveat is that he is not allowed to leave his room, for fear of ‘pathogens.’ He’s imprisoned from life, in a kind of kept-stasis by the very parents that should be allowing him to live.

An array of expensive looking medical equipment remains just out of sight, while Andy’s large picture window looks out at living damp, forested landscape where you can feel the fall chill in the air. A row of ripe corn slightly blocks his view, and it appears to be attracting crows. If not for this classic gothic image, kind of W.P Kinsella meets Edgar Allan Poe moment, you’d never know you were in the kind of People Under The Stairs remake that McNaughton and his first time screenwriter Stephen Lancellotti have arrayed out for the unsuspecting viewer.

Michael Shannon plays the Andy’s dad, Richard, who is seen early on driving far afield to get illegal and experimental drug treatments from one of his former co-workers. This is a kinder, gentler Shannon performance than is typical, here playing a nurse of all occupations, although he only has one patient: his son. Samantha Morton, in a bid to take the ‘world worst movie mom’ laurel form Tilda Swinton (We Need To Talk About Kevin) – indeed along with Morton (Movern Callar) both have graduated from the Lynn Ramsay school of complex and aloof females. Morton gives puts herself out there to the lynchmob audience that is going to arrive with pitchforks and torches to seize her Dr. Frankenstein mom-megalomania.

In The Harvest, most viewers will want to see mom get some serious comeuppance for being the ‘doctor playing god’ with the quality-of-life of her boy. Constantly shrewish and berating of her her meek husband for not being helicopter parent enough for her; when Andy asks her why she stopped having children after he was born, is a blindside-ingly powerful moment that almost singlehandedly elevates the sleepy setup. That is a damn serious question for a son to drop on his mom, and the movie earns some dramatic weight, which it with then gleefully repurpose to abject nuttiness. God bless this kind of genre filmmaking.

If hubby won’t stand up to his overbearing wife, enter Mary-Ann, the little girl who moves in next door and quickly befriends Andy through his window to the point where she thinks nothing of just climbing right in. If they weren’t so young, the scene would be down right sexy.

The sparks fly between mom and would-be girlfriend, and offer some much needed energy leading into act two, which continually ramps towards several legit surprises (to this jaded reviewer) which will not be spoiled here.

Suffice it to say, I am a sucker for ‘parenting films.’ And much of the meat on the bones of The Harvest is the consideration of bubble-wrap parenting of the 21st century. There is an opening prologue about the perceived dangers of pitching in a little league baseball game that is true, but please, first world suburban society let the damn kids play their baseball.

The transformation of Morton’s calmly superior, pro-active medical professional and mom, into a furiously punishing tyrant, drilling shut window sills, Lady Macbeth style scrubbing the wall paper with holy, germ-proof white acrylic is such that it has to be seen to be believed. It’s fucking magnificent. Her jealous emotional basket case of nerves and focus is one of the films chief delights – that she takes it out on a very willing and kindly Michael Shannon is icing on the cake. Watching these two perform against type, but really kind of spot-on-type, is worth the price of admission.

Poor Andy, who willingly and almost desparately befriends the fierce and independent young Mary-Ann (Natasha Calis, looking every bit the part of a spunky young Anna Paquin) much to his parents anxiety and chagrin, is stuck in his room, while she is free scheme to get him outside, and live a little in the fecund and misty air. In any other movie, this would be about sneaking the first sexual experience, but marvellously true to american puritanism, it is merely to play, ahem, catch…with a baseball. And it is not entirely familial or platonic with the children, sexual tension and a kind of frustration hover way off in the periphery for those who care to see it.

If you think of a wheelchair bound boy playing catch with a pretty young girl is too cloyingly sweet, well, this movie will beat those notions out of you quick enough when Mom and Dad return with some pretty ambitious plans to keep Andy and Mary-Ann apart.

Peter Fonda and Leslie Lyles play Mary-Ann’s ex-hippie grandparents, who are better parents to her than Andy’s are to him, but, in a baffling concession interested in making the screenplay work, they are obligated against all common sense and character to fail to listen to Mary-Ann when bad shit comes to light.

It is the movies cardinal error, almost breaks it in fact, that they don’t even slightly take her seriously, despite acknowledging her fierce independence, when she starts making heavy accusations of the neighbours. The notion that Mary-Ann recently lost her parents, and is struggling to adjust and make new friends in a new environment is almost valid enough, but seriously, someone for Christ’s sake make a phone call to the police already. It doesn’t have to be a full swat team, just an officer taking a peak around what the neighbour are doing with all that medical gear in the house. And while I’m nitpicking, as much as I really like late-career Peter Fonda, the dude has to stop saying “Far Out, Man” from this point onward. He’s great, but the line is painful.

Much of the reason for the current crop of nostalgia-films wanting to mimic the tone of Amblin Entertainment (from The Goonies to Poltergeist for instance) is that parents are so damn overprotective and paranoid of any hurts coming to their children. They are now stifling their children one ‘protected’ experience (or lack of experience) at a time. The Harvest, amps this idea, the fear of it as far as it can, while echoing the look of well-lit 1980s movies while telling something new. The chill fall air, warm apple pie, and sprawling ball diamonds remind me of the classic Disney chiller, Something Wicked This Way Comes as much as the Andy’s household hints towards the mad underbelly of America in Blue Velvet.

While The Harvest is a bit TV movie-ish at times and not quite in the league of those films, it comes dangerously close at times. Welcome back, John, we missed your particular sensibility, and yes, good things come to those who wait.

Fantasia Review: The One I Love

I doubt I will laugh out loud more at a film this year. Charlie McDowell’s couples therapy session par excellence featuring a very game cast of two, Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss, made me smile so hard at times my face actually hurt. I burned fucking calories with the enjoyment of this movie. The One I Love, contains enough insight and humour (not to mention, utter engagement) in its neo-Twilight Zone execution, that you may never have to visit the self-help section of the bookstore, ever. This is the mandatory date movie of the year.

Sophie and Ethan are several years into their marriage, still without kids, and are more content to follow the usual rhythms and patterns established over the years. This is to the point where they attempt to recharge their batteries by re-creation of positive prior romantic experiences in their more whimsical youth. They are desperately looking to find the original spark in their relationship, and it comes, oddly enough, in the form of a recommendation from their therapist. “I’ve sent a lot of couples there, and they come back…renewed,” a country retreat doesn’t sound the least bit ominous coming from the lips of a snowy haired Ted Danson, but Charlie Kauffman rules are in play here. Serious mayhem goes down.

The guest house at this retreat has some rather unique properties that I will not spoil — the joy is in the discovery of exactly what is happening in the comforting and blandly mundane space. Unfortunate that such a memorable film gets the unmemorable moniker of The One I Love. A better title would be the pun-ish double meaning of “The Guesthouse,” which I can only surmise was already taken by another, more inferior movie. I digress.

The myriad ways Sophie and Ethan approach their strange set of options prove a deep silver-mine of opportunities to explore the foibles of men and women, Mars and Venus, logic and emotion, fantasy and reality. Role-playing gets externalized and folded to the point where I’m not sure what the better half of a double bill for this film would be, Linklater’s Before Midnight, or Polanski’s Carnage, maybe even Cronenberg’s The Brood.

Duplass and Moss have exceptional movie-chemistry, and the subtlety of body language, costume details and other ‘clever audience cues’ are richly fulfilling to observant viewers. Even if you get ahead of the film, and you probably will, it is the journey, not the destination. Parsing the details remains secondary to all the different ideas of how people are both alone and together in any relationship; whether in a phase that is rewarding, or anxious, or petty and broken; what we see in someone else, what we want to see, what we even accept what we are seeing. And that we will be different people as time moves on is inevitable, hilariously so. The rules of what exactly entails ‘cheating’ on your spouse have never been more difficult to navigate.

In either case, the truism here is that either member of the couple cannot help but fuck with it; it being the nature of the beast, for better or worse, richer or poorer, and all that. Watching Ethan and Sophie fail time and again to ‘accept the mystery’ of their relationship and circumstance is, for the viewer with a certain disposition, a joy. The One I Love somehow manages to riff on Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with only a single couple, but still get at the ‘burned out version’ and ‘naive fresh version’ from Nicols’ film, that only McDowell’s special premise (the guest house) could make possible.

The film is a trust exercise that goes off the rails with intelligence and care, every detail just so, every revelation hilariously true. One minor nitpick involving a bit of unnecessary exposition via computer screen is easily forgivable when everything else is this fun. Suffice it to say, it’s going to be an interesting car ride home, whether you are just dating or married for decades. I wish I could say more. I feel this movie should be studied by genre fans and psychiatrists in equal measure. I wish all relationship movies, from rom-coms to art house dramas, were this smart.

Fantasia Review: Guardians Of The Galaxy

Confirming two axioms of popular cinema simultaneously, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy (hereafter Guardians) demonstrates that there is nothing new under the sun, but also that execution can easily trump story to make a pretty swanky piece of pop bubblegum. Director James Gunn and his capable writers are only a few fourth wall breaks away from Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs in that Guardians is a loving parody of the space adventure genre while also delivering memorable characters and banter and sight gags. Every place name is ludicrously silly, all the stakes are kept thankfully low due to the attitude of the characters and the movie. It puts the fun back into the multiplex popcorn film that this summer has been lacking outside of Quicksilver in X-Men: Days of Future Past. Guardians feels like the entire film is set in the key of that dense, fun, and most importantly, cocky scene.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Gunn’s voice is not silenced by the Marvel machine, I am curious to see if this movie changes the way people look at Jackson Pollack, or for that matter, parents have to explain that one-off joke to their kids (it will likely sail right over their tiny little heads like the blow job gag in Ghostbusters). Much like Sam Raimi’s initial foray into studio filmmaking, Army of Darkness, Gunn gets to bring in all of his favourite peeps to the party: Nathan Fillion, Gregg Henry (the filthy mayor from Slither), Lloyd Kaufman (Troma), even his brother Sean get cameos to pop in on the periphery to the main action. Even Kevin Bacon, who worked with Gunn as fried-eggs-loviing villain in Super, is here in spirit, mildly begging the question of whether or not he gets paid for his presence. Michael Rooker, in blue face paint right over top of his beard, enjoys a pretty significant opportunity to that thing he does. That is to look distinctly uncomfortable for our amusement, like he is having an unexpected orgasm in his pants while trying to make polite conversation at a party. This is the spirit of Guardians, in a way. Rooker is indeed excellent and off kilter as Starlord’s passive-agressive father-figure, and lover of troll dolls and kitchy knick-knacks.

Christ Pratt, as Peter Quill, aka Starlord, sports the tone, all-america surfer body of Caspar Van Dien in Starship Troopers, but is anything but vacant. He is self-away, sharp, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker all-in-one. Pratt nails timing of the screenplay and the sight gags. The tone of his salvage-man loner, happily adrift in the junkyard of space oddities feels not one bit realistic in someone surviving as the last man in space, but nevertheless very right. When he gathers all of these oddballs in the opening act of the film, 100% at odds with one another (one character even phones the villains their location to come and fight) he charmingly negotiates their foibles with wit and grace, but mainly invites everyone (audience included) to dance this little dance with him and enjoy the beauty and the fury of this wide universe.

The movie effortlessly cribs from Star Wars, The Heavy Metal Movie (particularly the John Candy driven Loknar segment), Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond The Stars and even the pilot for Star Trek: The Next Generation. Forgive my need to catalogue this kind of minutiae. All of this Mega-franchise connectedness of the Marvel-verse seems to invite this sort of thing, even when it isn’t important or necessary.

More than all of this, Guardians feels like an Edgar Wright movie (note the Peter Ser. All the best jokes in Guardians involve either character driven humour or visual gags involving framing and film grammar; the way stuff happens in the background, or looking away from a dense action set-piece to a nonchalant bit of calm negotiation happening just off to the side of all furious noise. The wicked soundtrack of precisely calibrated and implanted pop songs is perfection, even if many of the cassette tape moments were omnipresent in the marketing. Seeing how well Guardians works outside of the usual tone of the studio makes Wrights firing from Marvel’s Ant Man utterly baffling.

Like many a Marvel movie, the villains, look great in leather costumes and fantastic body tattoos. Apparently, everyone in this film goes to the same tattoo and accessory shop. Ronan, Korath and Nebula (more consonant-vowel-consonant, generic-ridiculous naming, in a movie with oh so plenty to spare) are completely uninteresting and self-serious-silly. Shades of Colm Feore, Karl Urban and Thandie Newton in similar, if not as good The Chronicles of Riddick, which, now that I think about it, also echoes a Heavy Metal Comic-vibe. The reavers, er whatever they are, baddies exist to merely to endanger the universe for no real compelling reasons other than to give the heroes fodder to mock in the middle of familiar CGI space battles and fist fights.

I was very happy to see, in the current ADHD blockbuster landscape, for Guardians to often slow down and spend time hanging out with Quill, Rocket, Gamora, Drax and Chewbacca…er…Groot for long stretches such that one could easily be convinced that this is a re-imaginging of Firefly/Serenity under the watch of Joss Whedon. I was surprised by how effective they get the CGI right. Rocket’s racoon bed heat, Groot’s charming presence and facial tics, the beautifully bright planet (where we encounter Glenn Close as the cheery governor and John C. Reilly as the guard-slash family man) has open vistas and bright clouds highly reminiscent of Farpoint (The Star Trek Next Generation pilot, as does a certain safety-barrier). The planet offers something to save, but also suitably serves up a complex introduce the characters chase with winning choreography, worthy of Buster Keaton. Furthermore, there are moments when the film stops to smell the CGI-roses in slow motion, engaging camera work that does what Brad Bird suggest these types of movies should always do: offer audience a little joy and wonder.

If I never bothered with story details in this review, please forgive me, but you’ve seen Star Wars and its plethora of derivates over the past 35 years, so don’t sweat the generic ‘subway-stop’ plotting (a Marvel-Disney speciality, but in all fairness, Spielberg and all those beloved ’80s fantasy films do it as well) and logistics and enjoy how much Guardians get to take the piss out of it all, with just more than a pinch of sweetness, and an Awesome Mix Tape #1 to make care just enough to not nitpick.

Fantasia Review: The Search For Weng Weng

I first encountered the work of Filipino action hero and tiny man-child Weng Weng at this very festival in 2007.

Andy Stark and Pete Tombs ran an absolutely bonkers reel of money shots from their Mondo Macabro release label in front of a Pakistani slasher film they produced that was playing at Fantasia that year. There was more than enough “WTF” splashed on screen for those wild 16 minutes, but the clips featuring a 2 foot 9 inch James Bond sporting a jet pack, or jumping out of high rise and floating down with just an umbrella, was a stand out.

This was the same year that The Chuds’ Weng Weng Rap video popped up on a nascent Youtube, also featuring loads of clips from For Y’ur Height Only and The Impossible Kid. And serendipitously, it was also the first year Aussie film enthusiast and trash scholar Andrew Leavold, embarked on a quest resulting in the documentary The Search For Weng Weng.

Scruffy and amiable, Leavold appears in the opening minutes introducing a small audience to the pleasures of Weng Weng films in Australia. His enthusiasm encapsulates that feeling of unvarnished pleasure that certain type of cinephile get from trashy grade z cinema produced anywhere in the world. The documentary, with zero pretense or production gloss, captures his investigation for answers throughout the Manila film scene, developing an empathetic tone as it goes along. It also gently begs the niggling question to the very same brand of cinephile: should we enjoy the product of so much icky politics and exploitative circumstance?

Weng Weng was born Ernesto de la Cruz into a poor family in Manila who nurtured him as a very tiny baby with medicine dropper. He died poor and rather ignobly, possibly from tainted shellfish in 1992. His gravestone is currently used to anchor laundry lines for people to dry their clothes; a practicality and reality for the area. Neither he nor his family ever saw any of the money — which would be a princely sum — that the diminutive actor’s films fetched on local and foreign markets.

The owners of LILIW Studios, Peter and Cora Caballes, are singled out as mercenary in their business practices. It is implied that after discovering young Ernesto in a martial arts dojo in the 1970s, where he was a local attraction mainly due to his size but also some real talent, they hired him to function as a comic side kick; a little bit of background colour. The Caballeses kept him, in their home, as much as a pet as an employee. There is a touch of this reflected in the films as well; in one film his micro-James Bond character is imprisoned in a bird cage.

When the Agent 00 films proved to be a popular hit and monetary windfall — one title went as far as outgrossing Raiders of the Lost Ark in a few markets — the Caballes worked him hard. Consider that there was not only zero CGI at the time, but also no stunt men of that size, so Weng Weng had to do all of his stunts in films that are wall to wall stunts. And you probably guess correctly that there was not a lot of safety oversight while these stunts were set up and performed. Weng Weng seems to have been paid only in the privilege of doing the work, and the studio mascot celebrity that resulted.

The Caballes’ line fell under the guise of ‘looking after his affairs.’ Peter would occasionally go out womanizing with Weng Weng in tow; this was more as an accessory, though. Perhaps the Weng Weng screen name came from the popular local cocktail made with rum, brandy, whiskey and pineapple juice, likely consumed while out on the town. However, even though the ladies often kissed or bedded Weng Weng in his movies, it seems that he was not afforded those privileges in real life, due to his size and circumstance.

Travelling around Manila, Leavold proves adept in his purpose, making fast friends with the colourful collection of directors, stuntmen, editors and other assorted players from the era. In drab looking shopping malls, or on outdoor stoops, they to do a lot of reminiscing about ‘the old days’ and drop the dirt on the Caballes often shaking their heads when reminiscing. The film goes one further, expanding it and contextualizing it to the business of power and politics in the Philippines and all roads lead to the long reign of Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos. Talking heads do a little high-brow pontificating about the soul of the country, and the function of a court jester to expose ills and the ugliness of the regime in a comic way.

Cora herself is now a politician of some note, and her shift from cashing in on the exploitation cinema boom to public office (where the money is equally flowing, one can guess) put Weng Weng, amongst others, out of work in the late 1980s. One might make the leap of logic that this also, indirectly, lead to the diminutive actors death. And yet, Weng Weng seemed to have enjoyed his fame both local and abroad (making it to the 1982 Cannes Film festival) and clearly looks to be having a blast in the films, so nothing here is black and white. Showbiz can be a nasty business in any culture and any time period.

If there is one big miss on this otherwise deeply engaging and thoughtful documentary, it is not getting Cora Caballes on camera. This would have been a coup of sorts and a logical climax for the film. Instead she and her playboy husband remain silent spectres of the ugliness of the business in the same fashion as the corpse of former President Marcos still sits embalmed under glass (for 20 years or so) awaiting a state funeral.

We are instead allowed to witness to the surreal 80th birthday party of Imelda Marcos. Pageantry, shaping hearts and minds, and a little bit of catholic ‘passion play’ remain a cornerstone of filipino Cultural Centre, which, not coincidentally, is run by Imelda’s daughter, Imee. Dame Imelda, ‘The Steel Butterfly,’ and her daughter prove chatty and adept on camera, and during the even, even place Leavold and his small documentary team at a table of honour. All the while telling the local media about the foreign press here to cover the big event.

The dozen or so Weng Weng films, from spaghetti westerns, to the 00 films (potentially six of them exist but only a couple are available) to various other rip-offs of money proven genres may are still vibrant to the cult of Weng Weng. For those of love the cheesy acting, off kilter narrative choices and bargain basement aesthetic of the era when Francis Ford Coppola, Roger Corman, and others were making films and pumping money into the Philippines economy for cheap access to jungle and military production value. This ground was covered with great energy and production value in Machete Maidens Unleashed! Leavold’s research contributed to Mark Hartley’s film in enough capacity to get him a Assosiate Producer credit on the 2009 documentary. But his own movie is a more intimate affair. Covering the life and legend of Weng Weng is more introspective, trashophile soul-searching and laced with a melancholy upon discovering various truths and circumstances in the young actor’s strange, wild and short life.

The Search For Weng Weng ultimately rationalizes, perhaps for the best, that these films exist regardless of the attitudes and conditions they were made under many years ago. Like Song of the South, The Sentinel, and other films that appear shockingly politically incorrect today, they still remain cultural documents of a certain time and place. People are still watching and celebrating the work, hopefully deriving these pleasures not from a pace of malice. Andrew Leavold invites us all to do the same.

Fantasia Review: The Midnight Swim

In Werner Herzog’s wonderful documentary, Encounters at the End of the World, he makes a point of showing that if you dive deep enough in those cold an antarctic waters, the experience not all that different than voyaging into outer space. Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain also used microscope images of bacteria in petri dishes as the special effects foundation for creating a dying nebulae on screen. I am continually fascinated with inner space and microscopic scale being as infinite as the far stretching galaxies.

Director Sarah Adina Smith, with her first feature, plays with both these ideas, but she does so with character and sibling drama as the driver for in her delicate psychodrama, The Midnight Swim. Introverted and damaged twenty-something June Brooks, who over the course of the film makes a dive deep down into herself and identity, possibly going too far. The film suggests that our connection to others is our lifeline to our self – perhaps we should not, or even cannot swim alone.

At one point the June’s camera — the film is in essence is the documentary she is making of an uncomfortable reunion at the family cottage — captures her visage from under the depths of the water. She has placed the camera into the lake water, just below the surface, presumably to get a good shot of herself that is reflective of her tenuous grip on normalcy. She has a pertinent self-awareness of this fact as she and her half-sisters seem to each have their histories of flakey mental issues, although this might just be due to sisters being sisters. Gathering images of herself and her dysfunctional siblings is a coping mechanism for June’s extreme introversion.

Current duress stems from the reason for which they are back together on the lake after many years of long distance and estrangement. June, Isa and Annie, the three of them brought together by the death of their mother, full time resident of the cottage, and marine biology researcher. Mrs. Brooks was diving the lower fathoms of the portentously named Spirit Lake before mysteriously drowning.

Reconnecting to one other at this moment in time, their childhood nostalgia is now overlaid with adult pathologies. They halfheartedly plan local shopping outings, discuss the future sale or repurposing of the home into a artistic retreat, and with June’s video-editing acumen, they make a cute music video to reconnect with a passed time. The improv is full of girlish giggles and fun, but it devolves into some rather intense roleplaying, by the oldest sister. This scene, in its uncomfortable intimacy, is acutely unsettling. June and Isa are forced to bear witness to Annie, the most dependable of the three beginning to crack. It is equally awkward for us in the audience due to manner of June’s filming and framing of her sister’s breakdown.

The Midnight Swim may end up with the increasingly pejorative label of ‘Found Footage’ film, but it is really not that at all. It is more an empathic point of view achieved by having a character (who makes documentaries) shoot what she wants to keep of her personal situation. It is not gimmicky in the least; rather it is transcendent in purpose. And yet, a moment here or there where a character makes direct eye contact with the camera offer a different kind of spine tingle.

Ideas of spirituality and rebirth are always skimming the surface of The Midnight Swim. Stories to be told while underneath the stars late at night, and the local folklore of drowning sisters, and the ghosts of the lake, not the least of which the newest mystery, the unfound corpus of their recently departed mother, scientist and spiritualist (character actor Beth Grant in a brief bit of spot on casting). When dead birds start appearing on the doorstep of the cottage, and footage not filmed by June starts appearing on her camera, it feels like things might move towards what is expected of the creepy horror movie genre, but there is originality to spare here, and it keeps going off to new places while always returning to the water, the font and the womb.

The drama, the fruit de mer, is the casual immediacy of the relationships of the three leads (Lindsay Burdge, Jennifer Lafleur and Aleksa Palladino), broken as siblings, and unable to find happiness or even a comfortably shared silence. This is always front and centre, while the so called ‘hippie bullshit’ is a backdrop, a shear curtain of mood.

The miracle of this movie is how the voices of the three actresses act as a kind of hypnosis, in their conversations and passive bickering. It is easy to fall under the spell of this rhythm. You feel privy to an intimacy that is rare in American genre cinema. When there is anxiety it easily spills over and out of the film, in a way that reminded me of Sebasti├ín Silva’s criminally under-seen hysterical woman horror Magic Magic from last year. And like Christopher Doyle’s exquisite cinematography in that film, Smith’s husband, cinematographer Shaheen Seth achieves here a naturalist beauty of the Iowa cottage country, all tinkly motes on the lake, along with a tactile immediacy; a rich shawl fabric, flapping in the wind, revealing and hiding the face of a traveller. The equally minimalist soundtrack lets the images (and the audience) do the work, but with this talented young director as a reliable guide (an achievement considering that this is Smith’s first feature) said work feels effortless in its rewards.

Simultaneously narcissistic and voyeuristic, one gets the feeling that June’s sisters have indulged her filming for years and years of even their most intimate moments, Smith allows us to gradually ease into June’s POV by showing how outsiders of this insular little family react to having the camera on them. A childhood boyfriend of Isa comes over for dinner to reconnect and is a bit weirded out that June would rather film them enjoy each other’s company than eat with them, where Isa’s reaction is telling that this is simply their normal. Another sequence involving a real estate agent visiting over tea to list the cottage on the market is both funny and honest in how people behave when trying to do their work while being filmed against their will. Scenes like this serve as effective lubricant to ease the audience into the headspace of the film.

A recurring image of June standing motionless in silhouette on the dock, illuminated in purple hues by the stars of The Pleiades (The Seven Sisters) which seem to get brighter with each repeat of the image. June gets darker, on the verge of becoming a traveller in the wide space of her own identity. Possibly, somewhere out there, Herzog is whispering a gentle voice-over, so we do not have to swim alone in a senseless universe. In short, I will be very surprised if I manage see a better film at this festival.

Fantasia Review: Predestination

Never do yesterday what you should do tomorrow, reads a sign in the early minutes of The Spierig Brothers’ delightfully loopy new film. Another reads, If at last you don’t succeed never try again. There are many of these twisted bon-mots lifted verbatim from Robert Heinlein’s short story, “All You Zombies” and scattered throughout its film adaptation, Predestination. Here is the thing about time travel movies: much time is in fact spent waiting around for things to catch up, even if it is only for that moment when Doc Brown sends his dog Einstein 60 seconds into the future. It leaves plenty of time to read the signs.

Starting in the middle, (or end, or beginning, as these things go) Ethan Hawke plays an unnamed G-man in the time travel bureau. Rushing through a labyrinthine industrial complex and multitasking to diffuse a bomb whilst in the middle of a gun-fight with his nemesis, a mysterious man we soon find out is called “The Fizzle Bomber,” this particular agent’s principle case-file. Things do not go well and he is horribly burned in the blast just before he jumps back to his temporal handler. A smart-suited bureaucrat played Noah Taylor, who, by the way pretty much the market for this role cornered (see: Edge of Tomorrow, Vanilla Sky and The Double), he signs off on some serious reconstructive surgery, and sends the still unnamed agent back to the field; specifically to the 1970s to gets a job as a bartender, to do that waiting thing, not on tables, on time.

With little to cling to only scant minutes into the movie, we are invited to start theorizing what this whole movie is on about, and we get to settle into the dimly lit, wood-paneled watering hole as a new character, possibly the fizzle bomber, takes a seat at the bar. This new fellow, played by Sarah Snook made up to look like cross between David Bowie and Jodie Foster, is a thirsty pulp writer who, after meticulously rolling a cigarette, engages both the agent cum bartender (and by extension, us) with a little banter, and a couple of bad jokes (again, signage) before settling into a lengthy autobiography that will contort into its own kind of ludicrously incestuous logic. Things are convoluted enough that it might just put a fork in the whole business of making puzzle-box time-movies for good. Subtly referencing may of the big ones that came before this, the cutest being the ‘zero-point’ of time travel in this universe is about the same time of that successful test of a certain DeLorean in August 1985. There are others, generously free of clever-for-cleverness-sake, never getting in the way of the story. They are also best left unspoilt here to be discovered or ignored.

If Predestination is a satire of the paradox sub-genre (from La Jetee to Looper) it is probably unintentional, it is still shockingly effective and infectious and a damned fine yarn. Look around at your fellow audience members if you happen to catch this in a cinema of strangers or in the company of friends, and try to guess where they are in terms of catching up with the films bag of tricks. If you cannot spot the sucker in the room, well, then…

Michael and Peter Spierig have a talent for making glossy science-fiction pictures with richly detailed worlds on (relatively) low budgets. They trade image and narrative propulsion over emotion or empathy, but these are sacrifices made for the simple joys of their own brand of robust entertainment. From Undead (Zombies) to Daybreakers (Bloodsuckers) to Predestination, they get better with each outing, and become more…er…Spierig. That is to say, their films are empty calories in terms of any real empathy or allegory, but tilting towards a sugary caffeinated rush. And even if you get a bit giddy racing ahead of a certain temporal field agent who is increasingly swallowed by the wake of his own butterfly flaps and clean-up efforts, take a moment to admire the clockwork and consider this, Mr. Heinlein’s final signpost: “There is no paradox that cannot be Paradoctored.”

Friday One Sheet: Chiaroscuro

Currently in the Fantasia Film Festival development market, Irish horror film, Black Horizon, is already winning the game in terms of concept key art. Reminiscent, to me anyway, of the Dali deaths head poster from The Descent, only with flashlights and shadows, it is eye catching and geometrically pleasing.

A about a group of friends who go camping and wake up in a dark, endless void. As they run out of food, fuel and light. They start to turn on each other as things take a turn for the surreal.

We hope that writer-director George Kane and his team can get this horror/mystery film to the point where it can see the light of day.

(For more concept art from the Fantasia Frontieres and Off-Frontieres development markets, check out Twitch or Fangoria)