Bodied [Fantasia 2018 Review]

Joseph Kahn has directed music videos for some of the biggest names in the industry, including Taylor Swift, Maroon 5, Katy Perry, and Eminem. Clearly, he’s someone very in touch with contemporary style, music, art, and film. Those things serve him well with Bodied, a movie about  rap battles. This is an unusual picture, in that it’s overwrought to the point of becoming tiresome, yet it also has some worthy things to say about race and its use in pop culture. The film screened at Fantasia 2018.

Former Disney Channel star Calum Worthy plays way against type as Adam, a young (white) man writing his Master’s thesis on the use of the N-word in the competitive rapping community. His investigations put him into the orbit of a master rapper, Behn Grymm (Jackie Long). Through a series of events, Behn encourages Adam to take on another guy in an impromptu battle, and it turns out that he’s kind of good at it. This gives him entry into the competitions themselves. Adam’s politically correct girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold) is none too happy about him partaking in an event that routinely utilizes misogynist and racist terminology.

The value of Bodied is twofold. First, it has a ring of authenticity in its portrayal of rap battling, taking you into a culture where bravado and creative wordplay are powerful tools. As Adam points out, it’s really people competing against each other using cleverly-crafted, sometimes vulgar poetry. Second, and more importantly, the movie is an examination of how different races view each other — and themselves. In order to fully make it in rap battling, Adam has to adhere to the style, which involves saying racist things that he would never dream of saying in daily conversation. At the same time, to say such things means that they must first be thought. Bodied suggests that we all have a touch of racism within us somewhere.

Concurrent with that, the film wants to be a satire of political correctness and the mindset, common especially among younger people, that every sentence uttered by someone must be intensely scrutinized to determine whether it could be even the slightest bit insensitive to any group of individuals. That’s absolutely worthy of satire, and there are moments when Bodied hits the comic bullseye. More often, though, the movie is too on-the-nose about it. The point of satire is that the message need not be explained; it’s inherent in the joke. The screenplay has a tendency to have the satire explain itself, which robs it of humor.

A few other things undermine the picture’s total success. The performances are mostly very exaggerated. Worthy, for instance, plays Adam with that broad quality that Disney Channel and Nickelodeon sitcom stars are trained in. He raps credibly, but his scenes outside the ring make Adam nerdy to an un-relatable degree. Bodied also runs two full hours, which is much longer than the story needs to make its point.

There’s definitely some good stuff in here, particularly the rap battles themselves, which — just by sheer virtue of the things said — point out that offensive remarks are  sanctioned in certain situations, yet still bring with them repercussions and the ability to wound. Those positives are, however, buried under a needlessly long running time and frequent heavy-handedness.

Bodied deserves admiration for its ambition, even if the execution isn’t where it could have been.

Mike McGranaghan

For more information on Fantasia 2018, please visit the official website.

For my reviews of movies in current theatrical release, please visit the main page of The Aisle Seat.

Lifechanger [Fantasia 2018 Review]

If Richard Linklater’s Slacker was remade as a horror film, it might resemble Lifechanger. The movie, which had its world premiere at Fantasia 2018, is ambitious and intriguing, with one heck of a twist in the final ten minutes. Writer/director Justin McConnell clearly has big ideas on his mind, which makes this something worth paying attention to.

Bill Oberst, Jr. provides the voice of Drew. We don’t really see him because he’s a “body thief.” Somehow he moves from person to person, killing them and taking over their bodies until they start to rot, at which time he finds a new host. Early scenes in the film show him inhabiting a body, spending a day or two in it, then moving to another (hence my Slacker reference). Aside from the trail of death and destruction left in his wake, there is an additional complication. Drew has fallen in love with Julia (Lora Burke, in a very good performance), so he continually works his way into her orbit with each new guise.

The heart of Lifechanger is that Drew wants to be near Julia, but he can’t if he dies, so he has to continue his murderous ways. That’s one heck of a hook! We follow him as he uses various metrics to determine whose body he should take over, and as he tries to figure out how to achieve the desired closeness with Julia in spite of his inability to remain static.

It takes a little while for the movie to get going. Understanding what’s happening and the “rules” of it takes some time. You also have to get to know Drew through his voiceover, since we don’t see the real him onscreen. That involves listening to what he says as he passes through several bodies and analyzes his predicament. Put the effort into doing those things and you’ll be rewarded. Lifechanger builds to a climax that pays off its premise in a thematically perfect way designed to make your jaw drop.

In terms of horror, there are absolutely some moments that will shock you. McConnell shows an aptitude for making things just as gruesome as they need to be to maintain effectiveness, without going overboard. The way violence is handled here makes Drew’s situation feel almost as tragic for him as for his victims. It becomes a warped, twisted version of the food chain.

Lifechanger combines an interior kind of horror with a very external kind of horror, which makes it a movie to have on your radar.

Mike McGranaghan

For more information on Fantasia 2018, please visit the official website.

For my reviews of current theatrical releases, go to the main page of The Aisle Seat.

 

The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot [Fantasia 2018 Review]

From the title alone, you might expect The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot to be a massive slice of cinematic insanity. It’s true that there’s a really bonkers sequence in which star Sam Elliott fights the legendary Sasquatch. Beyond that, though, the movie — which had its world premiere at Fantasia 2018 — is fairly restrained. That’s a good thing, because there’s far more depth here than the awesome and technically accurate attention-getting title suggests. Using the word “melancholy” to describe a film with such a moniker is odd, yet also perfectly apt. However you want to describe it, this is a special work that hits you in unexpected ways.

Elliott plays Calvin Barr, a man who has been carrying around a secret for decades: he assassinated Adolf Hitler. For a variety of reasons best unrevealed here, he never got credit for it, not that he cares. Despite eliminating one of history’s greatest villains, Calvin regrets having taken a life. The event also cost him his relationship with girlfriend Maxine (Caitlin FitzGerald), who is seen in the flashbacks that permeate the film. Aidan Turner plays Calvin during those scenes.

It is not a welcome event when representatives from the FBI and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police show up at Calvin’s door asking for his help. The FBI agent (Ron Livingston) knows about Hitler and now wants him to track and kill Bigfoot, who is carrying a disease that could wipe out mankind. After some initial resistance, Calvin agrees to put himself into a situation where he’ll have to kill again.

The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot has two questions at its core. The first is, What if you did something truly remarkable but had ambivalent feelings about it? The second is, Would it be foolish to do something remarkable again, given those ambivalent feelings from before? Writer/director Robert Krzykowski explores how Calvin struggles to reconcile what he did with how it affected his life. Yes, he made the world better for everyone else. For himself, though? That’s another matter. He’s not sure if it was ultimately worth it. In some respects, the movie is reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven in the way it maps the emotional toll getting pulled back into violence takes on the lead character, although Calvin Barr’s outcome is certainly different than William Munny’s.

Sam Elliott gives yet another stellar performance here, expertly conveying the way Calvin’s ordeal and its subsequent repercussions have worn him down over the years. You can feel every drop of guilt, remorse, and sorrow. At the same time, the actor shows how his character gradually opens up to himself and finds some form of acceptance over the course of his adventure pursuing Bigfoot. It’s more great work from a performer who routinely delivers greatness.

The fact that The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot is so hard to categorize is part of what makes it so special. Predicting where it will go from minute to minute is impossible. Krzykowski confidently weaves the story between past and present, reality and fantasy. A “big” moment will be followed by one that’s quieter and more introspective. He scatters little cross-references between timelines, and utilizes a clever metaphor for Calvin’s problem — one that involves his shoe. The cumulative result is that the movie takes what could have been a jokey premise and instead melds it into something mythic and meaningful.

One of the most pleasing qualities of genre films is their ability to tackle deep themes in a way that’s not as heavy-handed or obvious as they could be if tackled straight-on. The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot is as good an example of that as you will find. This is a touching, affecting story about a man coming to terms with his life’s deeds. And it just happens to have him fighting Bigfoot.

Mike McGranaghan

For more information about Fantasia 2018, please visit the official website.

For my reviews of movies currently in theatrical release, please visit the main page of The Aisle Seat.

Cam [Fantasia 2018 Review]

Cam is like a really taut episode of The Twilight Zone set against the backdrop of sex work. From the opening scene, it grabs you and doesn’t let go for an hour-and-a-half. The movie, which had its world premiere at Fantasia 2018, pulls you into the world of “cam girls” — women who host sexually-explicit online shows, and often get on slightly personal terms with their fans. Graphic, but never offensively so, it delves into the psyche of one such cam girl as her world starts to fall apart.  

Madeline Brewer gives a brave, ferocious performance as Alice. She has a loyal viewership in her guise as “Lola,” but is obsessed with breaking into her web host’s top 50. That entails using extreme tactics like implications of self-harm in addition to the usual sexual teases. Alice wants to tell her mother (Melora Walters) about her profession, yet figures it’s better to wait until she’s reached the appropriate level of success first.

Trouble strikes when Alice gets locked out of her account. Worse, someone else is broadcasting on it. Someone who looks and sounds exactly like her. How is this possible? Her effort to find out puts her in contact with two creepy regular viewers, and in pursuit of the #1 cam girl around. What she discovers is shocking.

The questions of how Alice’s account gets hacked and who does it are only answered very generally. That’s perfectly okay, because Cam isn’t so much about what happens as it is about Alice’s reaction it. Despite some horror overtones, this is ultimately a story of control. On her shows, Alice has it. She decides what she’s comfortable doing, how to present herself, and in what ways she wants to interact with her viewers. Using sex appeal as leverage, she calls all the shots. Once her account is hijacked and the other Lola takes over, she no longer has that control, which threatens to derail her dream of rising in the ranks. This realization leads to taking greater risks to get that control back.

Cam was written by Isa Mazzei, a former cam girl herself. That makes a huge difference, as the movie is filled with authentic details that add exponentially to the effect. Even if you’d never watch one of these broadcasts, the way Cam delves into the behind-the-scenes preparations, the relationship-building with viewers, the technical complications, and the rivalries between hosts is captivating. Director Daniel Goldhaber paces the film like a rocket, zipping back-and-forth between Alice’s real world and her online existence, showing how the two have become intertwined.

At the center of it all is Madeline Brewer (The Handmaid’s Tale). She palpably captures Alice’s single-mindedness in wanting to be a top cam girl. Although tough and determined on the outside, Brewer also suggests an inner vulnerability, as though Alice doesn’t see much potential in herself other than that which her hotness provides, so she willingly capitalizes on it. This role deserves to make the actress a star.

Cam is destined to be compared to the work of David Lynch, particularly Mulholland Dr., with its nightmarish, surreal quality and duel identity plot. Truthfully, though, the movie is more accessible than Lynch’s (admittedly great) output. There’s also a freshness to the treatment of the subject matter that makes it unique.

All the way around, Cam is a bold, electrifying thriller.

Mike McGranaghan

For more information on Fantasia 2018, please visit the official website.

Mega Time Squad [Fantasia 2018 Review]

If you’re a fan of time-travel comedies, Mega Time Squad is going to blow your mind. The movie, which had its world premiere at Fantasia 2018, puts an ingenious and often hilariously funny spin on the whole concept of how time-travel is used in movies. If you think you can guess where this New Zealand import’s story is headed, you’re completely wrong.

Anton Tennet plays Johnny, a low-level drug dealer who performs errands and chores for a local kingpin, Shelton (Johnny Brugh). One day, he gets the bright idea to stage a heist of his own, making off with the money Shelton has ordered him to steal from a local Chinese-run antique store with ties to a triad. In the process, he also swipes a magical ancient bracelet — one that, when a button on it is pushed, allows him to travel a short way back in time. There’s just one hitch: it also creates another version of him. And according to legend, a demon appears if a time-traveler meets himself.

Needless to say, Johnny uses it. What follows is a madcap adventure in which five different iterations of Johnny are pursued by people trying to get the money back.

Early scenes in Mega Time Squad are highly comical, as Johnny repeatedly gets out of trouble by foolishly generating new copies of himself. One scene, set in a public restroom, is especially uproarious. Then there’s a unique twist in the second half. Without spoiling anything, let’s just say that Johnny and his duplicates don’t necessarily trust each other. (That the character is self-aware about his own disreputable nature is one of the film’s shrewdest jokes.) Everything leads to a climax that finds Johnny and Shelton confronting each other. The way this resolves itself is deeply satisfying.

The special effects used in the movie are so seamless that I assumed director Tim van Dammen had somehow found quintuplet actors to play Johnny. You can’t see the seams anywhere. There’s a jaw-dropping sequence in which all the Johnnies confuse Shelton and his goons by wandering through a house simultaneously. Done in long, steady shots where he repeatedly passes himself, the scene is astonishing to watch. These are, however, just effects. There is only one Johnny, and Anton Tennet does a terrific job playing all the many versions of the hapless character. It is a testament to his abilities that we can keep them all straight.

One of the hardest things for any time-travel movie to achieve is to have everything be airtight, so that there are no “holes” in the plot and so that everything adds up 100%. I’m not entirely sure Mega Time Squad does that. Then again, it really doesn’t matter. The clever premise and appealingly offbeat sense of humor are more than sufficient to make this a comedy worth savoring.

Mike McGranaghan

For more information on Fantasia 2018, please visit the official website.

Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana [Fantasia 2018 Review]

Mike Diana drew insanely offensive art. That was his whole point. He wanted to be appreciated not by the masses, but by people who were on his own demented wavelength. Odds are you’ve never heard of Diana. He is the first U.S. artist convicted of obscenity. Now he’s the subject of an important documentary from director Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case, Frankenhooker) called Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana. The film had its international premiere at Fantasia 2018.

After a brief, informative history of underground comics, the documentary zeroes in on its subject. Diana was a young Florida man who published a zine (a homemade magazine sent out to subscribers by mail) called Boiled Angels. It was filled with cartoons that spoke to his personal obsessions: sexuality, religion, and violence. The sexual assault of children and infants was a common theme in his work, although it was presented in an extremely exaggerated fashion.

Through a freak confluence of events, Diana’s drawings came to the attention of the police. A traffic stop turned up a copy of one issue, and the officer noticed some similarities between the illustrations and a series of brutal murders that had taken place in Gainesville, Florida. Authorities tracked him down and immediately began investigating to see if he might be the killer. He wasn’t. That said, his work was deemed obscene, leading to an arrest and trial, at the end of which he was convicted of obscenity. No one had been hurt, and the zine only went into the hands of 200 or 300 people, all of whom voluntarily subscribed to it.

Henenlotter interviews Diana about his ordeal, but also talks to his parents, the prosecutor who won the case, a woman who followed the story in the media and showed up in court to confront him, and multiple fellow artists. Each offers a unique perspective on the trial and its long-term ramifications.

Boiled Angels: The Trial of Mike Diana uses these interviews to get at its main point, which is that it’s absolutely absurd for anyone to have been convicted for drawing provocative pictures. It’s precisely the thing the First Amendment is supposed to protect, and yet somehow, in this particular instance, justice was not served. If anything, Diana used his artwork as a means of getting rid of his demons in a productive, non-violent way. The problem is not what he drew, it’s that people couldn’t deal with those drawings once they saw them.

Narrated by punk rocker Jello Biafra and featuring a healthy swath of its subject’s work, Boiled Angels makes a strong statement about the need for art to push boundaries, to confront us, and to occasionally assault our sensibilities. Diana is clearly a shy man, so he doesn’t necessarily go deep into his feelings, but Henenlotter makes sure to fill everything out, leading to a documentary that will offend and enlighten you simultaneously.

Mike McGranaghan

For more information on Fantasia 2018, please visit the official website.

Four Must-See Movies at Fantasia

The annual Fantasia International Film Festival is soon upon us. The event, which takes place from July 12 through August 2, brings together some of the most innovative, cutting-edge genre films from around the world. The 2018 fest has an amazing-looking roster of titles.

Here are four must-see movies playing at Fantasia this year, which are certain to get a lot of attention:

Arizona – Danny McBride stars in this dark comedy, set during the 2009 housing crisis, as a disturbed guy who takes out his frustrations on anyone who displeases him. McBride is, of course, best known for goofy comedy, but there’s always been an underlying angry edge in his work. Here, he appears to indulge in that edginess, which promises an unforgettable ride. The screenplay was written by Brooklyn Nine-Nine scribe Luke Del Tredici, so you just know the dialogue is going to crackle. This could be a picture that shows its star in a whole new light.

Tales from the Hood 2 – Rusty Cundieff’s Tales from the Hood is one of the most important horror movies of the 1990s. The anthology uses issues related to race in each of its segments, leading to a viewing experience that is both provocative and entertaining. Years later, Cundieff delivers a sequel starring the great Keith David as the new Mr. Simms. (He takes over for Clarence Williams III.) It will be exciting to see how the director weaves in contemporary issues of race, especially in light of recent events that have rocked America. Tales from the Hood 2 looks to be a much-needed cinematic barn-burner.

Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich – If you grew up in the era of VHS, you doubtlessly know the Puppet Master franchise. These low-budget productions are notable for their murderous puppet creations, twisted violence, and wicked sense of humor. The latest installment, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, is more than just another sequel, though. It was made by the people behind the acclaimed genre film Bone Tomahawk, so it’s obviously going to be a totally original take, especially since it revolves around a Nazi puppetmaker played by Udo Kier. Thomas Lennon and the always-awesome Barbara Crampton co-star.

Our House – Thomas Mann plays a young guy working on an invention that allows for wireless electricity, while also caring for his brother and sister following the tragic death of their parents. What he doesn’t initially realize is that his gizmo actually opens up a portal allowing contact from the Other Side. I’m including Our House on this must-see list for a simple reason: I’ve already seen it, and it’s terrific. (The movie has begun screening for critics in advance of its July 27 opening.) A full review will follow in the weeks ahead. For now, I’ll just say that it continues the trend — started by A Quiet Place and Hereditary — of 2018 horror films that are as concerned with character and emotion as they are with scares.

Of course, there are many other awesome films playing at Fantasia, and I’ll be covering some of them here. For more information on what’s screening, check out the official Fantastia 2018 website.