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Fantasia Film Festival Reviews: ‘Sweetwater,’ ‘The Battery’ & ‘Ritual: A Psychomagic Story’

Fantasia Film Festival Reviews: 'Sweetwater,' 'The Battery' & 'Ritual: A Psychomagic Story'

Logan Miller’s “Sweetwater
(titled “Sweet Vengeance” in the credits, though it carries the first title at
Fantasia) is an idiosyncratic western with a decidedly contemporary
sensibility, merging a stoic approach to violence with an off-kilter, nearly Monty
sensibility. It’s an unusual fit, but an intriguing one, and despite the
silence of the film’s leisurely-paced scenes of dialogue, there’s never truly a
dull moment. Miller has a fantastic cast to thank for that luxury.

The central conflict involves
a minor land dispute between a couple (Eduardo Noriega, January Jones) and the
neighboring, cult-ish priest (a delicious Jason Isaacs) who believes in
cleansing his holy land with the blood of blasphemers. When the pontificating
pastor puts a bullet in Miguel (Noriega), its ex-prostitute Sarah (Jones) who
opts for revenge, just as the town begins discussing this flamboyant, porcelain
beauty with a fiery temper. At the same time, an irreverent wandering sheriff
(Ed Harris) has stumbled into town, and he’s bound to tackle Prophet Josiah’s
doctrine and philosophy word-by-word, bullet-by-bullet.

Harris and Isaacs are the
highlight here, Harris taking on a jocular part that captures the spirit of his
work in Alex Cox’s similar “Walker,” albeit with less political context. And
Isaacs produces a riotous, memorable heel, capable of lecturing away his
violent actions with a flick of the wrist and a shrug. It’s Jones who forms the
weakest part of this triangle: the actress has the sort of beauty that would
make her something of a found object in a Warhol project, but here, she’s stiff
when she should be authoritative, frigid when meant to be sexual. It’s the sort
of wooden turn that stops the film to a halt, keeping an agreeably violent and
amusing western from its proper status. [B]

The world doesn’t need another
zombie movie, but if we’re going to go down that well again, might as well do
it with “The Battery.” This low-fi hipster apocalypse pits two friends against
the void, with svelte Mickey (Adam Cronheim) worrying about their next meal,
and bearded Ben (writer-director Jeremy Gardner) generally enjoying the free
reign over a vacated society. The idea that these two formless dudebros are
former baseball players never rings true, and in an early moment, a character
removes his shoes to reveal spotless bare feet unlikely to belong to a
post-apocalyptic hunter-gatherer. You’ll have to forgive the movie for doing a
poor job at filling in the blanks.

The picture’s strength lies in
the interplay between Mickey and Ben, both with their own insecurities.
Cronheim’s Mickey is a jittery killjoy at every opportunity, but he brings a
believable anguish to this loner, someone who hasn’t gotten over the heartbreak
of his last girlfriend, one of apparently billions of lives lost. Funny and
acerbic, Gardner’s Ben has opted to let himself go, hiding a general contempt
for niceties underneath his bloodlust for zombies, ostensibly providing the muscle for the two of them. Mickey’s headphones suggest the desire to escape to
a better place, while Ben’s survivalist instincts and casual brutality suggest
a deep comfort level with shirking the expectations of modern society. As
strong as the film’s aesthetics may be (it’s got an offhand pastoral beauty
that recalls Kelly Reichardt), you sense it would be slightly unbearable with
two lesser actors. That is not the case.

The zombies themselves aren’t
much of a threat, though the radio voices coming from a group of professional
survivalists provide nostalgia for Mickey, and danger to Ben. There’s a
romanticism to Mickey’s infatuation with the female voice on the other line,
but it may be something else: in a uniquely perverse scene, Mickey finds sexual
pleasure in a particularly limber female zombie, only to see its head blown
apart by Ben in mid-stroke. It’s a funny bit, but it’s also a strong moment of
character for both of them, illustrating “The Battery” as a film with genuine
interest in not the humanity that’s vanished from the world, but the smaller
bits that remain. [B+]

There’s a different sort of
storytelling apparent in “Ritual: A Psychomagic Story,” one that will provide
innately confusing to viewers. That comes from the heavy influence of Alejandro
, the filmmaker who pioneered the art of psychomagic, a form of therapy
that transports patients back to traumatic moments and forced them to relive
them from a different perspective, possibly carrying on to the present day.
It’s a bit trippy, and it serves as inspiration for this strange, languid,
kinky film. Jodorowsky himself appears in one brief scene, whispering distant
fantasies to a dreamer at night; it’s as if he’s a ghost to cinema, one who has
only recently made a picture in the last twenty years (“La Danza De La
”), expecting the older works to be the first step in a journey of the
self. Unfortunately, ‘Ritual,’ directed by first-timers Giulia Brazzale and
Luca Immesi, doesn’t carry that sort of confidence.

We learn that Lia (the
luminous Desiree Giorgetti) is suffering from a deep depression, one that forces
her to leave the metropolitan life and retreat to the countryside to be with
her aunt. But this is told in fragments; the film begins with Lia disrobing
obediently for her abusive lover Viktor (Ivan Franek) while also meeting with a
therapist to put aside the demons of the past. Commitment is a major sticking
point; she holds onto Viktor like he’s gold, even if he cheats, withstanding
his abuse in the hopes of having a child. He is her only life vest, and while
their dalliances are erotic, they usually conclude with a verbal abuse of some
sort. Her one salvation seems to be with the ghosts of her aunt’s villa, those
that greeted her as a child when she wasn’t yet ready to understand.

Partially scored by Moby,
there’s a perfume-commercial elegance to the film that allows for random
montages of the arresting Giorgetti in a number of peculiar positions and
settings (Lady Gaga would love this film). The story becomes stripped away and
Brazzale and Immesi seem to prefer a sensual overload of ideas and concepts to
coherence: like “Amer,” that highly overlooked contemporary giallo from a
couple of years ago, you can smell and taste “Ritual,” even if you can’t at all
understand what’s in front of your eyes. Riveting it’s not, but “Ritual” serves
as a handy introduction to psychomagic, even as its narrative spins in circles.

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