Chattanooga Film Festival 2017

cff-logo-17-01-emI’m a big fan of the Chattanooga Film Festival, which has been going now for four years, and has yet to really let me down. Maybe it’s just a case where I’m in line with the tastes of the festival runners; maybe it’s just that their love of cinema in every form, from music videos to trashy exploitation, shines through in the festival programming. But whatever the case, the Chattanooga Film Festival has quickly become something I always look forward to, giving me the chance to see a lot of great films that I might never otherwise get the chance to see, to say nothing of exposing me to things that I’d never heard of. And while this year only found me able to attend for two days (really, one and a half), I still managed to fill my time with a lot of great movies – a couple of knockouts, a bunch that were all mostly good, and only one that sort of missed the mark – and even that one wasn’t without its moments. Not a bad streak at all.

Saturday kicked off with the animated film My Life as a Zucchini, which tells the story of a young boy who finds himself in a foster home after the accidental death of his alcoholic, abusive mother. my_life_as_a_zucchini_posterThat sounds like it’s setting you up for a grim experience, but Zucchini nicely walks a difficult, narrow line, managing to make a warm, joyous experience that simultaneously deals with the awful circumstances that brought each of these children to this house. My Life as a Zucchini isn’t a film about foster care reform; indeed, the house here is a good one, and the children thrive under the loving care they receive. More to the point, the film generally avoids easy characterizations, letting even its bully character evolve into something funnier and more interesting very quickly. At its core, this is a film about finding a family, like so many other children’s films; for all of that, there’s a warmth and kindness here, and a willingness to face up not only to the darker sides of childhood, but also of the weird edges (lots of conversations between young boys trying to figure out sex) that give it a rich, honest feel. Not a film for young kids, but a charming film nonetheless, and one that won me over quickly. Rating: ****

The next film may also have been animated, but apart from that, they couldn’t be more different in pretty much every way. Dash Shaw’s My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is a silly mock epic, the story of a high school that, we1032268-hssposterwebll, is literally sinking into the sea. In theory, this allows the film to trade on the sort of apocalyptic adolescent imagery that made Donnie Darko or The Age of Miracles so effective, turning a coming of age into a literal end of the world. In practice, though, My Entire High School is a bit of a mess, with low-tech animation that doesn’t add much to the story, a decent voice cast that doesn’t get to do much, and a jumbled plot that feels sort of cobbled together. For all of that, it’s still often very funny – Shaw has a knack for absurdity, and brings out some great details, including a Lord of the Flies riff where the senior athletes set up their own society, or the weird backstory of a hardcore cafeteria worker. The absurdity works better than the film, though, resulting in something that feels like it wouldn’t be out of place as an Adult Swim series, but doesn’t have enough meat to work as a film. Rating: ** ½

Luckily, I followed the weakest film of my festival run with one of the best. Liam Davis’s A Dark Song is a haunting, deeply unsettling film – adark_song_poster_final horror film more concerned with psychological dread and unease than it is with scares, though it more than provides those. It’s the story of a woman who has decided to engage in a dark ritual, one that can last up to eight months, and once started, forbids the participants from leaving the salt circle which sets the boundaries of the ritual. What that means is that, for the vast majority of its running time, this is a film about two people, in a closed-off house, and the stresses of their occult ritual. Catherine Walker and Steve Oram, both unknown to me before this, play their parts incredibly, with Walker slowly revealing the trauma that led her to request this dark rite, and Oram playing the part of an expert whose experiences have helped him to understand what he calls the “architecture” of this world. Davis, not content to let A Dark Song simply be a horror film, lets his characters breathe and converse freely, becoming more than just archetypes, and grappling with questions ranging from grief and coping with loss to metaphysical, religious questions raised by the nature of the rites they’re engaging in. And if that’s not enough, it’s also beautifully shot, whether in our brief glances at the Welsh environs or the shadowy interiors of the house. But at its core, this is a horror film, even if it’s one with more on its mind than simple scares. And it builds to one of the most memorable images I’ve ever seen in a horror film, one that elevates A Dark Song to nearly a whole different genre in its final moments, and creating an instantly iconic moment. I truly loved this film; it’s not like much else out there (the closest thing I could compare it to would be The Witch, with its lived-in feel and low-key approach to its horrors, as well as its fascination with ritual and religion; nonetheless, this is too modern and minimalistic to make a perfect comparison there), has some of the most beautiful shots I’ve seen in a long time, and tells a wholly unique, strange story that I loved. Rating: *****

I was worried about following up A Dark Song with Lake Bodom, simply for fear that it wouldn’t be able to hold up against the comparison; when you follow one horror movie with another, you can’t help but make comparisons. bodom-posterFortunately, Lake Bodom couldn’t be more different from A Dark Song, preferring gore, violence, and old-fashioned slasher atmosphere over A Dark Song‘s headier fare. But don’t hold that against Lake Bodom, because it does all of that stuff incredibly well, delivering a stylish, fun movie that wears its influences on its sleeve (a bit of Carrie here, a bit of High Tension there, a lot of Friday the 13th throughout) and just encourages you to have a darkly violent time. Based on a real incident in Finland, in which a group of teenagers were butchered at a lake as they camped by a still unknown suspect, Lake Bodom follows a group of teenagers as they go to camp at the killing spot in order to check out some theories. But there are other tensions here, even apart from the constant sexual tension between two guys and two girls out in the woods apart from parents; there are hints of a deep disgrace that’s led to one of the girls becoming a social pariah, and then there’s that one kid who just seems super obsessed with the murders…you get the idea. Lake Bodom isn’t anything groundbreaking, but what it does, it does well, delivering several big twists and reveals that keep the movie transforming before your eyes into something else, all before ending with a frustrating epilogue that I kind of hated, but whose purpose I understood more after reading up on the original events and realizing what they were trying to do. More than that, though, Lake Bodom has style to spare, using its shadows and darkness with art and style (there’s an underwater shot late in the film that I absolutely adored), and doling out its scares and violence nicely. There’s not much here you haven’t seen before, but it’s done well, with style, grit, and relentlessness, and the constant shifts in the story keep it moving like a sick, bleak rocket ride to hell. Rating: ****

What came next couldn’t have been more different – and that’s certainly not a bad thing. The closest way I can possibly describe the joyous, funny, wonderful Dave Made a Mazeposter is to tell you to imagine that Terry Gilliam, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and Michel Gondry got together to watch Labyrinth and thought, “I bet we could do something even more fun than this.” Because how else can I describe a movie in which a struggling artist builds a cardboard labyrinth in his house, only to find that it’s much bigger on the inside, and he may have gotten lost…oh, and there may be traps that are killing people. If that sounds dark, it shouldn’t; Dave Made a Maze is an absolute joy, delivering laugh-out-loud dialogue, boundless imagination, and even staging the deaths with a burst of inspired lunacy. Director Bill Watterson, who makes his debut here (and that is insane, given how inspired this film is), stages the action wonderfully, never missing the chance to go both for a joke and a bit of incredible imagination, and using cardboard and household craft supplies to incredible effect. It doesn’t hurt that the cast is uniformly great (or that I will never not enjoy James Urbaniak in things, and letting him play a documentary filmmaker who’s directing all of the action around him only gives him more to do), but more than anything, this is just pure fun, with enough emotional heft to keep you invested, and more than enough imagination, style, and joy to keep you smiling throughout. It’s maybe my favorite movie from the whole festival, and I can’t wait for it to open wide so it can become the cult hit it’s destined to be. Rating: *****

Mind you, as imaginative and wonderful as Dave Made a Maze was, it doesn’t even begin to approach the sheer insane weirdness of Angieszka Smoczynska’s The Lure, which is almost definitely the best Polish disco musical about murderous, man-eating mermaids ever made. lure_poster_900Words can’t possibly do justice to the insanity of this movie, which is – naturally, as you’ve assumed by now – a super loose retelling of The Little Mermaid, which follows two young mermaids as they make a name for themselves into a disco nightclub, find romance, and struggle to figure out their place in the world. How this results in bizarre surgeries, full-on musical numbers, massively uncomfortable sexual imagery, and more – well, it should really be experienced, rather than explained, because there’s no way I can convey what it’s like to watch this movie. (I feel like critic David Ehrlich saying that he watched the movie on Ambien, and had to go and rewatch it to confirm that he didn’t hallucinate some of it, makes good sense.) The Lure doesn’t always work; its weirdness can be a bit much at times, and you’ll start to see that, underneath it all, it’s a story you kind of know already, and it’s going about like you think it will. That doesn’t mean that it’s not worth seeing, though; whatever else you may think of The Lure, it’s astonishing to watch, with some absolutely incredible sequences that hold their own against the numbers of La La Land, some surreal comedy that never failed to crack me up, and just the sheer insanity of it. Just, you know. Brace yourself. Rating: **** ½

If you’re feeling like there’s a lot of style in these films, there undeniably is, making for a rich theme for the weekend. Nowhere was there more style – but sadly, less substance – than in The Void, voida piece of cosmic horror that gave me some incredible images and moments, but falls apart in its weak final act. Set almost entirely in a rural hospital that’s only a few days away from shutting down completely, The Void follows a small group of survivors – some medical personnel, a local sheriff, a few assorted patients, and a couple of others – as they find themselves under siege by a strange, cloak-wearing cult that seems to have surrounded the hospital out there in the darkness. With some fantastic creature design, and glimpses of a nightmarish cosmology, it doesn’t take The Void long to show its true colors – this is horror in the vein of Lovecraft and Barker, and its dark themes are pretty gripping and interesting ones. However, the film feels about thirty minutes longer than it is, and that’s before the never-ending “bad guy monologue” that starts to close out of the film. I liked The Void more than most of the people I saw it with, but I’m not going to deny that it’s got some big problems with regard to pacing and storytelling. (There are two characters whose involvement in the story never ends up making much sense, once you learn why they’re there.) Still, if you can give yourself over to its style, there’s a lot there to love, with some fantastic images and some truly disturbing moments. But it feels like the first work of a directorial team whose best work is still ahead of them. Rating: *** ½

The final film of my film fest experience was one I was looking forward to, mainly because of a film I had seen at an earlier Chattanooga Film Festival. A couple of years ago, I saw E.L. Katz’s Cheap Thrills, a gleefully nasty, darkly comedic little thriller that followed a pair of friends who found themselves squaring off in a visceral competition of wills. It was an absolute blast, and made Katz someone to watch. With his second film, the great Small Crimes, screen-shot-2016-05-05-at-9-26-11-amhe goes from “a director of interest” to “man, this guy is fantastic.” Co-written by Macon Blair (who’s worked with Jeremy Saulnier on his films), Small Crimes follows a convict named Joe Denton (played by Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) as he’s released from prison and tries to figure out what to do next. Small Crimes feels like a 70’s noir in many ways, complete with a dark antihero who uses just about anyone in his path, lies constantly, and is capable of horrifying actions; more than that, though, it’s also a story about the way we struggle to redeem ourselves, and to escape our pasts. How that escalates into an increasingly violent series of events should be seen rather than told; suffice to say, there’s a noir-like sensibility to the film that I loved, with bad men doing bad things in a bad time. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the film has a knockout cast, with supporting roles by Blair, Gary Cole, Molly Parker, Jacki Weaver, and best of all, Robert Forster as Denton’s father, trying to understand how his son came out this way. Small Crimes is gritty stuff, with a rich, lived-in feel, a complicated take on morality, and a nicely complex plot that keeps you gripped throughout (though there’s one big exception in the end, with a single plot thread that feels a bit arbitrarily ended). It’s great stuff, and I hope it picks up an audience; it’s fantastic work, and even better than Cheap ThrillsRating: **** ½

IMDb: My Life as a Zucchini | My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea | A Dark Song | Lake Bodom | Dave Made a Maze | The Lure | The Void | Small Crimes
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