Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
Puke bags were handed out before Monday’s Fantasia screening of “Relaxer,” which couldn’t be more perfect of a viewing tool. Joel Potrykus’ slacker chamber piece doesn’t have the ability to make one throw up because of any specific image, but more because of its mise-en-scene: through its precise filmmaking and whirlwind script about one loser who never gets off the couch, it’s a magnetic, five-senses experience for slacker cinema. The movie just smells so fucking bad.
The centerpiece of “Relaxer” is Abbie, a Sisyphus of shitheads in 1999 who sits shirt and pants-less on the couch. It’s fair to say that Abbie (Joshua Burge, looking like a Todd Solondz character) hasn’t done much with his life. But if you listen to his domineering older brother Cam (David Dastmalchian, sometimes overheated) and what he barks at Abbie, maybe Abbie hasn’t accomplished anything at all. That’s especially the case with their intense, macho “challenges,” the first being Cam trying to make Abbie drink a whole gallon of milk in only so much time (guess what happens). In the movie’s many uncomfortable, vivid beats, the idea of a challenge is not a playful thing between brothers, but an order.
“Relaxer” truly takes off when Cam gives Abbie an ultimate challenge: get to level 267 of Pac-Man, which was a Billy Mitchell challenge back in 1999. Abbie can't get off the couch until he gets it done. But “Relaxer” doesn’t pursue this goal with a regular arc; the rest of the movie has Abbie playing the same game, and we don’t see his progress, or even his strategy. Instead, we get a stronger sense of his pathetic isolation from the world, like when he gets a visit from his friend that he hopes will bring him Chuck E. Cheese pizza (a scene-stealing Andre Hyland, improvising his way to a lot of comedic gold while looking like a bassist in a Limp Bizkit cover band). During this, the camera keeps things confined at a strict eye-level when showing Abbie, as visitors often go out of frame simply because they’re standing up. Textures start to emerge: the taste of milk and urine (don’t ask), the sight of cockroaches, the sound of Pac-Man running up and down, back and forth, another boxed-in soul.
In ways that have to be seen to be believed, it becomes more abstract; Potrykus’ excellent, ambitious arrested development visual of a man on a couch is just the beginning. Working with such a small space, “Relaxer” becomes like a survival movie, but one that banks on small victories like being able to pick up a styrofoam cup using a grabber. Potrykus’ script opens up its logical possibilities by not answering the question that lingers on everyone’s mind, and which makes “Relaxer” all the more visceral: how does Abbie go to the bathroom?
From New Zealand comes the delightfully dorky “Mega Time Squad,” a grounded sci-fi mini-odyssey with lots of creativity and even more laugh-out-loud gags. Owing itself to references like “Highlander” and “Looper,” it’s one of the funniest movies I saw at Fantasia, boasting a dry sense of humor that's prominent during its cartoonish course of events and nifty visual comedy.
The self-amusement of the script from writer/director Tim van Dammen is contagious, starting off by following dimwit John (Anton Tenet) and his buddy Gaz (Arlo Gibson). Picked out from a crew of similar wannabe crooks who treat the gig of being criminals like teenagers do fast food jobs, they’re set to steal some cash from an antique shop. But while they decide to steal the cash for just the two of them, John wants to steal an ancient Chinese bracelet to give to a girl he likes. They’re warned by the store owner that the bracelet has evil powers. “You will return it,” he sternly instructs them. “Oh. Is that because it was made in China?” John asks, with the same sweet sincerity that makes his underdog criminal so endearing.
John finds out soon enough that said bracelet has a time travel ability, which comes with a warning that someone who wears the bracelet should never see a second version of themselves. Of course, John ends up making multiple versions of himself, while being chased by other thugs who are directed by the angry gang leader Shelton (Jonny Burgh), who is more like an aggravated soccer coach than Marlon Brando in “The Godfather.”
As it zips through a tightly plotted course of events, with us learning along with John about the possibilities in having multiple versions of yourself, “Mega Time Squad” balances winning lowbrow jokes with a rickety time-travel concept. It’s sometimes hard to keep up with: the different loops can be confusing, like keeping track of which John is which. And after having my second viewing of the movie, I wish more was done to show how John slightly changes each time there is a new version of himself; initially, it feels like the Johns are all truly the same, and that the first John has been lost in the fray.
Non-flashy details go a long way with this clever original script, like how its criminals are as emotionally innocent as characters in a Charlie Brown story, and that it doesn’t pat itself on the back for presenting a group of bored criminals as being more than a boy’s club. Hetty Gaskell-Hahn, as the sister of Shelton who doesn't need the saving John thinks she does, becomes a refreshing no-BS straight-man, and more than just a love interest, to John's multiplying antics, nor does she need the saving John thinks she does (we're introduced to her as she's casually building a bomb vest). And given that there are so many of versions of Tenet, he's a very charming surrogate into this wild experience, but just one inspired piece of this thrilling second feature from the very promising van Dammen.
Director Kenji Katagiri's “Room Laundering” starts with a heck of a premise: the idea of “cleaning” apartment spaces the way people do money, AKA when an apartment is “dirty” because someone was murdered in it, someone in brought in place to be the next resident, so that the apartment can be then sold as if the previous tenant hadn’t been murdered in the kitchen, or committed suicide. The stooge in this case is the reclusive Miko (Elaiza Ikeda), who doesn’t talk to people but carries around a trauma of her mother disappearing at a young age, and oh yeah, she can talk to ghosts. It’s a convenient skill she has for her illegal business, which is arranged by a slick-looking older man named Gore (Joe Odagiri) who she met when he burst into her mother's funeral. It’s a long story to explain that one, but it’s frustrating that Katagiri withholds said story for a later emotional effect.
Over time, and with a tone that balances its interest in death with soft lighting and a bright color palette, a charming, busy story takes form: about broken souls—not just ghosts—who are stuck in a certain place, inhibited by their own fears. There isn’t a lot of nuance, even though its dealing with a lot of colorful characters with sad backstories, and the story is about bringing some type of justice to them. But once you think the story is one idea, it becomes another, and then another. Its creative hunger might be its most exciting aspect, even if the project seems geared to be as emotional or quirky as possible.
The score for the movie reminded me of Nathan Johnson’s own movie for “The Brothers Bloom,” with trotting banjos, horns and mandolins creating a type of mini-parade this side of Dixie. But it puts the movie into perspective—“Room Laundering” is a bit of a con movie just like Rian Johnson’s, designed to play with audience’s perceptions, for the sake of making them feel the unexpected. In the case of “Room Laundering,” it does eventually work in the end. But there are a few too many times when you can sense Katagiri’s hands trying to play the audience.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
A tribute to Doris Day.