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AFI Fest 2016 Wrap-Up

Choosing movies at a film fest is very often the luck of the draw. You read the write-ups, you see which films have won awards at other festivals and then you figure out what works for your schedule. It’s a bit like those “every flavor” gummy bears in the Harry Potter books: Some of the films are amazing, some end up being the cinematic equivalent of earwax.

I was lucky to see some amazing films at this year’s AFI Fest (including triple-prize winner Divines), but also some movies that had me wishing I’d seen anything else.

Divines

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Directed by Houda Benyamina
Written by Romain Compingt,
Houda Benjamin, Malik Rumeau
Starring Oulaya Amamra, Déborah Lukumuena,
Kévin Mischel, Jisca Kalvanda, Yasin Houicha,
Majdouline Idriss, Mounir Margoum, Farid Larbi

I chose this film because I was focusing on films about women and directed by women at this year’s fest. And there was something about the haunting image of lead actress Oulaya Amamra that reminded me of that famous 1985 National Geographic cover of an Afghan girl.

Like the girl in that famous photo (who’s back in the news), I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we’re still talking about Amamra 30 years from now.

She’s mesmerizing as 15-year-old Dounia, who lives in a gypsy camp in Paris with her drunkard of a mother and who dreams of the high life. Her ticket out of poverty? She volunteers to work for the local drug dealer, Rebecca (Jisca Kalvanda), who is impressed by her boldness. Rebecca sees potential in this tough hoodie-wearing street girl, giving her a glamorous makeover as part of a plan to get revenge on a old rival who owes her money. Dounia has to navigate not only the streets and her volatile boss, but this dangerous undercover assignment, by turns scared, ecstatic and devastated.

Like this year’s excellent American indie, Moonlight, this French-Qatari film is a heartfelt, lyrical work of art about someone living a gritty, marginalized life. And it features an unlikely romance that somehow shouldn’t mesh with the rest of the film, but that only made me love it more.

The film won the Caméra d’Or (best first feature film) at Cannes. At this year’s AFI Fest, it won the New Auteurs Special Jury Mention for Acting for Oulaya Amamra, New Auteurs Audience Award, and Breakthrough Audience Award.

It’s an exhilarating film, one that signals the arrival of two fantastic new talents in its star and director.

Divines is now available on Netflix.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prevenge

2048

Written and Directed by Alice Lowe
Starring: Alice Lowe, Kate Dickie,
Gemma Whelan, Jo Hartley,
Kayvan Novan, Tom Davis, Mike Wozniak

When I read the synopsis — a pregnant woman kills a series of people because her fetus tells her to — I put this at the top of my list and it did not disappoint.

British actress Alice Lowe (Timothy Dalton’s gum-chewing secretary in Hot Fuzz) wrote, directed and stars in this in this hilarious, pitch-perfect black comedy — all while actually being pregnant in real life! It’s a difficult balancing act, juggling the murders with a wicked sense of humor, but Lowe absolutely nails it.

The first few people we see Ruth (Lowe) kill seem like particularly nasty specimens, but when she starts targeting more sympathetic people, we’re conflicted, even as we learn the reason why they’re on her — or rather her baby’s — hit list.

As she goes in for her routine checkups, the conversations with the doctor are all the more hilarious when the doctor advises her “Baby knows what’s best. Just listen to baby!” If she only knew what baby was telling Mum to do! Lowe’s performance throughout is, as the Brits say, spot on.

Getting close to each target requires a new subterfuge, such as an awkward fake job interview and an overly cheery door-to-door charity drive, which are some of the funniest moments in the movie.

Lowe attended the screening with her now toddler, saying during the Q&A that of course, her real baby is not wicked at all and she has some apologies to make when her daughter’s old enough to see it.

She plans to make a sci-fi movie next. Sign me up.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Bloody Barbara (short film)

cvkcdolw8aaoeolWritten and directed by Shawn Bannon
Produced by Alix Bannon
Starring Atheena Frizzell

This fun six-minute short (which preceded Prevenge) is a must for horror fans. Barbara (Atheena Frizzell) is a horror film junkie who loves to go out covered in fake blood. She wanders Hollywood Blvd looking like she’s just stumbled out of a scene from one of her favorite films.

She gushes about why she loves horror so much and how all her favorite films, including Carrie and The Descent — usually involve the heroine being soaked in blood. She even carries extra fake blood with her in case anyone else wants to get in on the fun! As someone who once dressed up as Kate Winslet’s blood-spattered murderess in Heavenly Creatures for Halloween, I thoroughly appreciated her bloody film scene recreations.

Except, of course, everyday is Halloween for Bloody Barbara. The husband-and-wife filmmaking also brought their baby to the screening of Prevenge.

Horror: It’s great for the whole family!

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Kill Me Please

kill-me-please-2016Written and Directed by Anita Rocha da Silveira
Starring Valentina Herszage, Dora Freind,
Mariana Oliveira, Júlia Roliz, Rita Pauls,
Laryssa Ayres, Vicente Conde, Bernardo Marinho

The write-up for this Brazilian arthouse thriller called it “Giallo-tinged,” but that’s a bit misleading. It is set against the backdrop of a serial killer, who is leaving bodies in an open field near the many high-rise apartments in Rio de Janeiro, and it is as sumptuously visual as any Giallo, but the killer remains firmly in the background.

The film focuses on Bia (Valentina Herszage), who is as obsessed with sex and her social status as any high school girl. Her mother (whom we never see) is mysteriously absent, leaving her and her older brother João (Bernardo Marinho) to fend for themselves.

The morbid details of the victims bleeds into the everyday life of Bia and her friends. One thinks Bia looks like one of the dead girls. They look her up on Facebook and Bia ends up attending one of the victim’s funerals.

After discovering one of the victims herself, she begins acting oddly herself, trying to choke her boyfriend and randomly lashing out at her friends. In one memorable segment, each of the girls sports a bloody injury in a lingering close-up. High school is hell, even if no serial killer is on the loose.

The feeling of dread and unease never lifts, even through the enigmatic ending. We never find out who the killer is, although there are some unsettling hints that it might be someone very close to Bia.

The film is a stunning debut in many ways, but it felt overlong and maddeningly vague. Ultimately, it’s more of a mood piece than a thriller, but one that leaves a hypnotic hangover.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

The Red Turtle

theredturtle_trailerWritten by Michaël Dudok de Wit and Pascale Ferran
Directed by Michaël Dudok de Wit

The first non-Japanese film from Studio Ghibli (the studio behind Spirited Away and so many other anime masterpieces) is beautifully animated and incredibly moving, but a movie I also found frustrating in many ways.

The film has no dialogue but the emotions of the main character, a castaway who washes up on the shore of a remote island, are always clearly conveyed. He’s hopeless, he’s deliriously happy, he’s exhausted…. We feel his joy as he sees a pier that indicates the island must be inhabited, then his despair as he awakens from what was just a dream.

We’re fully with him as he surveys the island and builds a raft. His first raft is mysteriously destroyed by an unseen force in the ocean, so he builds another, and then another. Finally, he sees that it’s a giant red turtle who seems intent on keeping him on the island.

Back on land, he takes his frustration out on the friendly turtle and that’s when things take an odd turn. (Wikipedia spells out the magical twist that happens here, but I won’t spoil it for you.) His animosity towards the turtle is perfectly understandable, but I still found it troubling. Especially since his fortunes improve considerably after he leaves the turtle for dead, stranded on its back on an unforgiving beach.

I may be the only one who felt this was scene was a deal-breaker. I was less involved in what follows next for the castaway, although by the film’s final, moving scene, I was in tears.

It’s a beautiful film, but I wish it hadn’t been quite so long. And I was disappointed that the magical elements of the film, which are key to our hero’s story, are so minimal.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Fear Itself

fear-itself-suspiria-still-1024x429

Written and Directed by Charlie Lyne
Narrated by Amy E Watson

I liked that this take on horror movies is made up entirely of scenes from existing horror movies — a storytelling device I enjoyed in Room 237 — but sadly, I can’t really recommend it.

Although listed as a documentary, it’s actually a very personal film essay, one that makes the terrible mistake of employing a narrator (actress Amy E. Watson) with an extremely grating voice.

It’s hard to focus on what she’s saying when you’re trying to tune her out. And some of what she says rings true — we’re less afraid when we confront our fears, et cetera — but much of the voiceover is banal and pointless.

I was not sure while watching whether the story she’s telling — how she binged on horror films after a terrible car accident — is her own personal story or a script she’s been given to read, since she’s not credited with writing any of it.

According to BBC, she “worked with Charlie on shaping the character of the narrator.” Her jarringly uneven Scottish-accented narration is explained by the fact that (also according to the BBC) she was born in Canada but now lives in Glasgow.

I enjoyed seeing clips from familiar films such as Carrie, Suspiria and Lost Highway and the way those scenes were strung together to illustrate a point, sometimes even drawing on non-horror films such as Gravity.

I was also intrigued by clips of films I’ve never seen, although I’m grateful this movie warned me to never, ever see something called Amber Alert. (Yikes, that looks bad.)

The power of horror films is undeniable and Fear Itself taps into many of the films we love in seeking to understand why we’re so fascinated with them. But the annoying voiceover and the feeling that we’re being led by a guide who doesn’t know where she’s going, or why, were a serious liability.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

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