2018 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: A SECOND SLICE OF STRANGE

Ambiance

Demolition is going on not too far from my window. Apologies in advance for any typos or misinformation; I’ll blame the occasional ground shudderings and Carbon Monoxide I’ve been reading warnings about.

7/17: The Nightshifter [Morto Não Fala]

Poster from NightshifterNightshifter‘s director, Dennison Ramalho, has been hovering around the periphery of the Fantasia Festival with shorts for over a decade now. During that time has met José Mojica Marins (of “Coffin Joe” fame), looking for that filmmaker’s ring (a gift from ‘s wife) on the dark floor of the cinema, as well as Ken Russell (of Ken Russell fame) at the Fantasia screening of A Serbian Film.

What Ramalho brings to the table in this outing is a refreshing bit of horror (!) revolving around a morgue attendant, Stênio, who can speak with the dead. When he makes the mistake of misusing their information he is doomed to be haunted by an incredibly angry and bitter (and dead) wife. While it is marred by a too-obvious score (we’re already dealing with corpses, murders, morgue prat falls, and haunting) that focused too much on the jump-string section instead of maintaining a quiet unease, the Nightshifter still manages to pack a bit of a punch. Its necessarily troubling finale is gratifying in its way, too, as Stênio rises to the challenge of accepting his fate. More from Ramalho will likely be a good thing for horror fans.

7/18: Boiled Angels: the Trial of Mike Diana

Trusting the voices inside my head, I took in a screening of Frank Henenlotter‘s latest film early this afternoon. This the Henenlotter of Basket Case fame: what would attract the interest of this genre filmmaker? Nothing less than the once obscure, now infamous trial of Mike Diana: the only artist in American history to have been found guilty of obscenity. Though it’s a talking-heads documentary, Boiled Angels naturally enough skirts along its periphery, using narrated illustration segments and gee-whiz-colorful meets Dear-God!-extreme examples of comics both from Mike Diana and much of American comics’ underground history. Various luminaries provide remarks, from Jay Lynch and Stephen Bissette (who testified for the defense) to George Romero and . What makes this documentary stand out in particular is that the filmmakers reached out to Mike’s adversaries and gives those players not just screen time, but also a fair shake. Must see for afficionados of underground comics: Mike Diana took R. Crumb as a starting point and drove that particular car right off the cliff.

Cam

For a directorial debut, Cam is an impressive piece of work. Along with screenwriter Isa Mazzei, also debuting, Daniel Goldhaber shows both the real fear of having one’s identity hijacked and that sex workers are people, too. There is a necessarily claustrophobic tone to the movie: much of it takes place in Lola’s (Madeline Brewer) webcam studio where she performs for a group of enthusiastic regulars. After an ill-fated marketing stunt at the Cam Girl’s Clubhouse, Lola finds that somehow, something, has nabbed her account and is posing as her. Cut off from her source of income and eventually exposed to family, she grows increasingly desperate to stop the impostor as she struggles to keep herself together. While Cam holds together for the most part, I had a nagging problem that began at the screening: the phenomenon of Lola’s double is never adequately explored. While a number of explanations are given, the filmmakers never wholly commit themselves to the nature of the beast. That is a small complaint, though, against yet another reason this Festival has given me for not using the internet. Perhaps 366 should become a magazine quarterly?

7/19: Under the Silver Lake 

Full-length review tomorrow, July 25.

7/20: A Rough Draft

Still from A Rough Draft (2018)Sergey Mokritskiy’s science-fiction film lived up to its title quite well. Over the course of two (admittedly rather entertaining) hours, the adventures of Kirill (Nikita Volkov), a talented software designer, unfolded in a flurry of increasingly ill-defined activity. Based on a series of famous Russian novels by Sergey Lukyanenko (of Nightwatch fame), A Rough Draft probably would have made an amazing (and comprehensible) miniseries. As it stands, the movie feels a lot like a “Cliff’s Notes” movie. I imagine all the plot points were struck, but only in the most cursory manner; it was almost as if they dropped every third page of the script.

After his identity is erased from the lives of his friends and family, Kirill finds himself drafted into becoming a sort of customs agent for interworld travelers, checking paperwork and charging tariffs as appropriate from his tower whose many doors open on to many different Moscows. In a neat little propaganda bit, the “best” Moscow that it opens on never had a Communist revolution (nor discovered oil or gas), with the Russian Empire still being intact. A sentiment Mr Putin would no doubt approve of.

The Man Who Killed Hitler and then The Bigfoot

Still from The Man Who Killed Hitler and then Bigfoot (2018)The title kind of says it all, in a way. However, Robert Krzykowski’s debut feature is really more a meditation on aging and coping with regret. ‘s performance as Calvin Barr (the man who killed Hitler, and then kills the Bigfoot) was naturally the highlight. As a fairly quiet drama more than an action movie, it succeeded famously, strangely making me wish for more scenes involving the old man. Unfortunately the movie was marred by the excessiveness of flashback sequences pertaining to the young Calvin and his ill-fated romance. Still, that’s a small complaint considering the film’s other merits, which include the appearance of a marvelously deadpan Ron Livingston as an FBI agent billed only as “Flag Pin.” The packed house loved it, particularly being able to pose questions to the great Sam Elliott after the movie. Just about worth my two-and-one-half hour wait in the press line.

7/21: Chuck Steel: Night of the Trampires

Still from Chuck Steel: Night of the Trampires (2018)Some concepts for short films are expanded to a feature length, and work: last year’s stop-motion animation wonder Junk Head, for example. Other concepts, like Chuck Steel: Night of the Trampires, need, I’ll politely say, perhaps a bit more polish and thought. In all fairness, Michael Mort’s feature debut (those seem to keep cropping up…) never overstayed its welcome, and necessarily required a lot of skill and effort. But, with the gag as it is (’80s-style loose-cannon rule-breaking maverick cop going crazy-go-nuts violent as he squares off against bloodsuckers), there is only so much steam to power the narrative mechanism. The opening fifteen minutes of action and exposition were top notch. Then it limped. Then it came to life. Then limped. Then—so forth. Fortunately, it was saved by a powerhouse finale which included, out of the blue, a tip-of-the-hat to a stop-motion legend: when our steely hero attacks a mutant laser-shooting lizard, he jumps on the beast with the battle-cry, “HARRRYHAUSSSEN!!!” (Oh yes, I suppose I should have mentioned that in addition to the undead, there’s a “world domination by lizard” conspiracy…) Michel Mort… this guy… I’m hopeful for his future; but if you skip Chuck Steel: Night of the Trampires, you’ll probably be okay.

LOUDER! I Can’t Hear What You’re Singin’, Wimp!

Eh.

Rock sensation “Sin” (Sadao Abe) is a throat-doping death metal performer who is a god to his fans; acoustic-guitar toting Fuka (Riho Yoshioka) is a soft-spoken aspiring artist who lives with her Uncle Zappa and Auntie Demon. Taking a bit too long to tell something of a love-or-maybe-personal-growth story, director Satoshi Miki doesn’t find the right tone for the film until around halfway through. Beginning with a Sin concert gone wrong, the audience is treated to a whole lot of mouth-spewn blood. (My trachea is still wincing from the scenes.) When Sin escapes his handlers and meets up with Fuka, things start to move along, only to be interrupted by cutesy absurdities that sometimes work (Sin as from Wild at Heart squaring off against Zappa and Demon) but often don’t (weird ’30s stage musical blocking, idiotically behaving Koreans in a fireworks factory collective, and, less-cute, more random throat blood). I left the cinema feeling rather… Eh.

Puppet Master: the Littlest Reich

Still from Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich (2018)Unbeknownst to me until it was introduced, the latest Puppet Master movie is the first feature produced by “Fangoria” magazine. And it was far, far more entertaining than it had any right to be. Thomas “144 Acting Credits” Lennon stars as Edgar, a soft-spoken, fast-talking comics writer/comic book shop employee who goes to the 30th anniversary of the “Toulon Murders” to sell off an old puppet that his brother (who died under mysterious circumstances years ago) left behind. Assembled at the convention center are a gaggle of other collectors, all of them bringing their own Toulon puppets. Alas for our cast, that hotel is right near the puppet master’s tomb, and once the guests are assembled things start going badly—particularly for those guests whose ethnicities or life-styles might offend the tender sensibilities of Nazi puppets.

Anyone familiar with the franchise will be very pleased to see these 2′ psychos back in action. In Puppet Master: the Littlest Reich, the (pleasantly) gut-wrenching violence is accompanied by funny dialogue and a protagonist who is neither stupid nor overpowered. As an extra delight, makes an appearance as a no-nonsense retired policewoman working as the tour guide at the Toulon Mansion. And there’s , who against the odds actually seems to be Giving a Damn about his performance. If you’re even thinking about checking this out, you should.

7/22: Lôi Báo

Still vfrom Lôi Báo (2018)As one of Vietnam cinema’s few entries in the comic-style super-hero genre, Lôi Báo (directed by Victor Vu) skimps a little bit on the action but remains well within the genre’s science capabilities. Comics artist Tam (Cuong Seven) is diagnosed with lung cancer and has perhaps two weeks to live. However, family friend “Uncle Ma” happens to be a medical research scientist who had been working on a bold new procedure: full body transplant. After stumbling across a recently deceased corpse by chance, Uncle Ma slaps Tam’s head on the cancer-free cadaver and voila: not only is he healthy once more, he has somehow gotten stronger and can recall the “genetic memory” of his new body. Things go sideways when he’s mistaken for the dead man — a henchman of a mafia syndicate that, among other things, dabbles in organ harvesting. I’m inclined to be more sympathetic to this feature considering its novelty, but there is a recurring character that just about torpedoes the movie every scene he’s in: the protagonist’s son. His presence was so damaging that another reviewer wondered out loud if the boy actor was perhaps the son of one of the financiers. Lôi Báo is obviously set up as an origin story, so perhaps better luck on the next outing?

Our House

Perhaps it is too harsh to grouse,

But it’s a view that I greatly espouse:

With just family affairs

And not any scares,

I advise against watching Our House.

Parallel

Still from Parallel (2018)You may not believe me, but toying with inter-dimensional portals is a very dangerous hobby. A group of house-mates — all on the verge of success but never quite making it — accidentally stumbles across a mirror portal to slightly different worlds; worlds where time goes exponentially more slowly than their own. In the midst of swiping cash, stealing technology, and appropriating their other selves’ art, things eventually go wrong; and then things start going wrong again and again. Isaac Ezban’s science-fiction drama kind of succeeds in a Primer-meets-Shallow Grave kind of way and the translocation is deftly handled by filming and lightning cues (so for better or worse, we’re always grounded in what’s “real”). But such clarity greatly undercuts both any sense of weirdness as well as suspense. The conscientious character feels guilty, the unstable character goes nuts, the reluctant character keeps trying to escape, and the ne’er-do-well character does not do well at all. There was some satisfaction in watching the collapse of some not-wholly-relatable people, but as with so many movies, Parallel doesn’t go far enough in any of the directions it seems it’s heading.

7/23: The Dark

Still from The Dark (2018)It seems almost to be a reward for having sat through the impressively tedious supernatural-movie-with-happy-ending (s/m/w/h/e) movie, Our House that I was able to catch not one, but two(!) very good movies of the s/m/w/h/e genre. The first of two was Justin P. Lange’s debut feature, The Dark. When a kidnapper tries to escape the authorities by fleeing toward the Devil’s Den, he is in for a shock: the stories about that haunted woods are true. After being viciously murdered, young Mina (Nadia Alexander) is cursed to roam the woods, dispatching any would-be intruders. That is until she meets the kidnap victim (Toby Nichols), who cannot see her grisly undead state—his eyes having been burned closed. While he’s dealing with the Stockholmiest of syndromes I’ve ever seen, Mina tries to help him, and in so doing reacquaints herself with her own humanity.

Among the many things this movie does well is having nearly all the musical cues be diegetic, which allowed for a sense of realism otherwise unattainable, as well as forcing the “jump” scares to stand on their own without an italicization, underscore, and exclamation point driven home by sharp strings. Both the young actors are of that rare breed that actually realistically portray their characters without cloying cutesiness or hammy emotion. Being a house-in-the-woods horror movie, The Dark is obviously not without its violence, but the characters’ ultimate destination was one that, despite my considerable jadedness, I found heartwarming.

The Witch in the Window

Still from The Witch in the Window (2018)Thank Heaven for efficient movies. In a scant eighty-minutes I saw a father and son bond, a house get fixed up, and a really creepy lady looming by a window. Using the horror genre as a backdrop for a story about a family, Andy Mitton painted a realistic and amusing portrait of an estranged father (Alex Draper) reconnecting with his son (Charlie Tacker). The titular character is rarely seen, but delivers a lot of genuine scares when she does appear while also allowing for some humorous reactions from the man and his boy. As they learn more of their house’s history from their frightened neighbor, the father becomes increasingly keen to make the house, once again, “a good house.” To do this, he is forced to face the witch, with nothing less than his spirit hanging in the balance.

The Ranger

The Ranger (Jenn Wexler), having its Canadian debut at Fantasia, is a prequel to the Lord of the Rings trilogy concerning a young Stryder as he… I’m just kidding. They didn’t let me in to the packed house. I really don’t know what it’s about.

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