2019 FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL: OMNIBUS FIELD REPORT #1

Supplement your reading of Giles Edwards‘ full-length reviews of The Deeper You Dig, Vivarium, Dreamland, and Come to Daddy with this digest of “everything else” from week one.

Montréal 2019

It could have been a century ago: I descended from the subterranean locomotive to make a rendezvous with a Frenchman at a café to gain access to my base of operations.

7/11: Sadako

Flowing from a deep well of tedium, this J-Horror Ringu “re-boot” made me nostalgic for a film I haven’t actually seen. (Shame, shame.) Over the course of one-hundred long minutes, I was challenged to feel sympathy for young hospital psychologist, Mayu (Elaiza Ikeda), find her insufferable brother, Kazuma (Hiroya Shimizu), endearing, and be remotely crept out by the “mysterious girl” (Himeka Himejima). It failed on all counts. The director of the original franchise, Hideo Nakata, was at the helm and managed to drain whatever life was present in the original to present an over-lit, under-developed story which only managed to elicit an enthusiastic response from the audience on two occasions. The first was from a direct nod to the video of “girl-with-hair-emerging-from-well”; the second was a raucous laugh at the discovery of a victim that reminded me of nothing else so much as Martin Prince’s contorted corpse reveal in The Simpson’s “Nightmare on Evergreen Terrace”.

7/12: Little Monsters

Little Monsters StillDirector Abe Forsythe accomplishes what I had thought impossible: wringing another blood droplet from parched Zombie Movie cloth. (Bad metaphor: forgive me, it’s early.) Little Monsters opens with an hilarious montage of a couple constantly bickering while the credits run, setting things up nicely for dead-beat, former musician Dave (Alexander England) to hit rock bottom and crash at his sister’s place. While there, he connects with his nephew, and ultimately meets the nephew’s kindergarten teacher, Miss Clementine (Lupita Nyong’o, playing her as a cross between a schoolmarm and a manic pixie dream girl). What follows is a field-trip to a local zoo, which happens to be situated right next to an American military research facility. (Forsythe knows well that he’s re-treading the zombie thing; when troops are called in there’s the exchange, “Zombies? Again?” –Yeah. “Fast ones, or slow ones?” –Slow ones. “Thank God it’s the slow ones.”)

The movie is not only an odd mishmash of rom-com and zombie horror, but also plays like an R-rated version of a G-rated movie: if it weren’t for the considerable (and I mean considerable) amount of swearing and, of course, some gore, it’d be a cute movie for the family. Oh yeah, there’s that sex scene… Anyhow, if anyone out there hasn’t yet lost faith in the genre, it’d behoove you to check out this cute little film that—bonus—features some Taylor Swift classics played on the ukulele.

7/13: Away

Away Still Goes to show what a guy with considerable imagination, determination, and time can do. A young boy is caught in a tree branch, his parachute having gotten entangled. He awakens and sees a giant, hazy, black humanoid beast with unblinking illuminated eyes approaching, seeming about to consume him. His escape from its clutches is just the beginning, as he travels through fantastical and beautiful landscapes on an abandoned motorcycle, following a map left behind by a less fortunate adventurer, and accompanied by one of the cutest stupid animated bird characters I’ve ever seen. (During a point of particular danger on the journey, I learned just how emotionally invested I had become in the thing.) The bird’s occasional chirps are the only dialogue to speak of as events unfold in a purely visual style. Menace is maintained as the black-cloud giant slowly but relentlessly pursues the boy across a desert, a mirror-lake, and more. Gints Zilbalodis, the “Director/Writer/Cast /Producer/Sound Designer/Composer/Editor/Animator,” has created a vivid tale, reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft’s lone cheerful novella, “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath.”  (Highly “Recommended”—unofficially “Must See.”)

Jade’s Asylum

Jade's Asylum stillAlexandre Carrière’s “kitchen sink” method of filming almost works in Jade’s Asylum, but never quite finds its footing. On one side, there’s a criticism of the toxic “bro'” culture of masculinity; on another side, there’s a meditation on regret; on another side there’s anti-Americanism; on another side there’s a plant-zombie horror; and on yet another side there are the jokes-y credits that, though actually entertaining, seem like a strange comic spackling over the preceding movie. That’s, what, five sides in total? The two main takeaways I got from this movie (which I don’t recommend, but really didn’t mind watching) are that filmmakers should be mindful to bite off only what they can chew, and people really should intelligently communicate their difficulties with one another from the get-go. It seems that every time I watch an onscreen relationship that’s soured to the point of hatred, it necessarily stems from the fact that the parties involved are incapable of talking with the people with whom they’re ostensibly in love. (This public service announcement courtesy of field correspondent for 366 going considerably off-topic.)

The Gangster, the Cop, and the Devil

Still from Gangster, the Cop, the Devil, TheEach year there are at least two features that come with free food from South Korea, and this was the first. At the risk of termination of my employment, I’ll admit that I watched this knowing full well beforehand that it wasn’t a 366-type title; I also knew full well beforehand that it would be an absolutely roaring bit of fun. It’s apparently a remake, but Won-Tae Lee’s by-the-numbers crime thriller is so wonderfully crafted that it transcends its mundane roots. Boyishly corrupt Cop is forced to work with hard-as-nails Gangster when they experience a mutual problem: the Devil, in the form of one of those giddily smiling S.O.B.s that just loves to kill strangers. The Devil wakes the wrong dog through a failed attempt to murder a crime boss, luring him from his car by rear-ending him. The fun-time action is spiced heavily with fun-time quipping and culminates in one of those gloriously savage beat-downs that itself is followed by a surprising court room run-in that itself precedes a vengeance-heavy prison scene. I’ve already seen better movies at the festival, but it’s unlikely I’ll see one that’s more fun.

7/14: Hit-and-Run Squad

This was the other South Korean crime thriller. While often teetering along the cliff edge of “rote,” there were enough dirty cops, double-crosses, and cathartic bad guy beat-downs to keep my attention. Where director Jun-hee Han earns his A+ grades, though, are with the feral, speed-freak villain (who in addition to a chip on his shoulder also suffers from a rather unnerving stammer) and the big chase finale between the bad guy and the erstwhile-drug-runner-turned-nerdy-traffic-cop, whose boss rallies the assistance of the city’s truck towing community with a plea over an illegally scanned police radio channel. Saggy a bit before the end, but finishes its business on a very high note.

Paradise Hills

Still from Paradise Hills Alice Waddington, I am told by those who’d know, made a startlingly impressive debut a few years back with her short film “Disco Inferno” in the annual “Born of Woman” showcase. Whatever magic that may have exhibited had obviously dissipated by the time she got around to her feature-length debut (though she still managed to attract the interest of TV’s Emma Roberts and the lovely Milla Jovovich). When a young woman in a sometime-in-the-future high society milieu proves to be too headstrong to marry a sociopathic billionaire, she is sent to the titular venue for two months of conditioning. The training involves all the trappings of uber-Patriarchy, and the opening 80% of the film plays like a standard (if well made) dystopian morality play. My real trouble with the movie began with the final act, when a comet strike of dark fairy tale fantasy smashed the proceedings, tonally shifting the entire exercise. I’ll admit that both parts worked in their way, but they did not work well together. Still, it’s worth seeing for the Gucci-bondage costumes, Susperia-esque sets and lighting, and Jovovich’s ice-queen turn as the “Duchess.”

Mystery of the Night

MYSTERY OF THE NIGHT posterThis was a heavy turn as my fourth movie of the day (and not my last one, either). Something would have to change with our List designations for this not to make the Apocrypha: Adolfo Alix’s movie features tones of experimental theater cut up with nature documentary, many people-as-animals in the cast, a naturistic performance from the female lead (and I mean this in three ways, one of them having to do with her being fully nude for well over half the movie), and a complex discussion of the evils and impacts of early 19th-century Spanish colonialism as it overran native Phillipino folklore and culture. Put bluntly, this movie needs another look from 366, preferably from one of the (many) reviewers who are smarter than I am.

July 15: SHe

SHe StillAs a bold indictment of the patriarchy and a stern warning against the dangers of power being exclusively held in anyone’s (or any gender’s) hands, SHe isn’t that much of an odd duck. What makes Zhou Shengwei’s debut awe-inspiringly bizarre is the fact that it’s done entirely in stop-motion, has no dialogue, and concerns a world inhabited by shoes. It begins with a piebald breeding pen made up of coats, gloves, zippers, and a watchful overseer, a leather men’s shoe, who supervises the snatching of infants (fruit pieces plucked from ladies’ shoes) and conditioning them into men’s footwear by replacing flower-eyes with lightbulbs, plant soil with gears and machinery, and painting over crimson patent leather in drab black. One lady shoe makes a bold dash for freedom, massacring all in the birthing zone and disguising herself in the black shoe leather of the overseer.

Her journey brings her to a factory peopled (or, I suppose, “shoed”) by men who are lazy and grotesque, and who earn their wages (white ankle-socks) by schmoozing with the boss after each shift… You get the picture. Or perhaps not. SHe is thematically easy to explain (a female gets empowered, smashes and burns the machinery of masculinity, the world becomes green, etc.), but it occurs to me that I could go on and on describing characters and set-pieces for hours without conveying the vibrancy of color and creativity of action. Conveying so much socio-philosophy with just footwear in a Metropolis-factory world is an incredible feat. I’ll mention briefly that I was surprised this was made in China. The opening sequence clearly smacked of criticism of the Communists’ now-defunct one-child policy: every little girl (shoe) being stripped of her identity to make a son loudly echoes the choice made by many parents when their firstborn child was female. Regardless, I haven’t seen such fancy stop-motion work since the last film I watched.

7/16: Porno

Still from "Porno" (2019)For, indeed, what better way is there to start a Tuesday afternoon than with a little Porno? To answer a likely first question, yes there was a great deal of nudity; to answer the possible follow-up, I would hope not to come across anyone aroused by what ultimately happens. As its cheeky title suggests, Racela Keola’s feature debut is a comedy. A horror comedy. A horror comedy with plenty of violence, particularly in regards to male sexual organs. A group of teenage-ish small town kids who work at a Christian-bent film theater convince their manager to allow them an after hours screening club. Like a church lock-in, the manager closes the doors and says he’ll come back to shut the place down at midnight. Between his exit and the Hellfire finale, they find an old film reel and watch it. They see a -esque ritual, with nudity, (“Is this an ‘art’ movie?,” asks one; later another wonders, “Is all porn like this?”) Before you can say, “Playing the Movie Summons a Demon,” enter the succubus. The various (charming) teens romp around in terror, have quiet asides to each other, and all grow as people (with one, alas, diminishing corporeally for his lesson: beware to anyone who might shy away from graphic depiction of… well, just beware). All said and done, it was a heckuva fun ride, and impressive how far the film-makers went both for laughs and story.

BLOOD & FLESH – The Reel Life & Ghastly Death of Al Adamson

BLOOD & FLESH key artThis is probably the best “talking heads” documentary I can remember watching. Of course, that was made a bit easy for the director, David Gregory, as his subject’s life was fascinating, amusing, and then mysteriously tragic. Starting as a “true crime” kind of pic (he was murdered and buried in the cellar floor by his handy-man), it lovingly covers ‘s career with interviews from just about everyone who knew the guy personally and professionally, intercut to great effect with clips from the pertinent movies. Adamson somehow managed to work with Gary Graver (a cinematographer for ), Vilmos Szigmond, and (of West Side Story), as well as a number of old movie stars after they’d been spat out by the Hollywood grist mill. Later in life, Adamson developed a strange obsession with UFOs and aliens; adding the final mystique to this B-movie director’s already colorful story is his grisly death at the hands of his housing contractor. As Fantasia coordinator Mitch Davis emotes in his blurb, “If you’ve got even a passing interest in cinema, you want to see this.”

Dracula vs. Frankenstein

I will now emote myself: If you’ve got most any interest in cinema, it’s merely sufficient that you know about this title. From my understanding it was hashed together from three or four semi-aborted projects, and the incongruity shows. I would not have watched this were it not sprung upon us at the end of the Blood & Flesh Q&A bit, but I turned to a fellow reviewer and said with a sigh, “Well, we’re here. I guess we’ve gotta.” Wrapping up shortly after 1 AM, I can recall some fifteen minutes of gloriously obtuse dialogue and delivery, but mostly I recall tedium. My reviewer buddy did (reasonably) remark that there wasn’t any point in the movie when something wasn’t happening, it’s just there’s a whole lot of “something” in the world not worth seeing. You know if you’re the kind of person who wants to see a movie like Dracula vs. Frankenstein, probably because you’ve already seen it.

7/17: Swallow

Still from SwallowCarlo Mirabella-Davis’ Swallow is one of those movies that isn’t quite within my field of expertise or experience. It’s the story of a young woman being slowly enveloped by the oppressiveness of her husband and his family, only able to find a sense of a control that eludes her by swallowing varieties of household objects (a glass marble starts her journey, but she quickly develops a taste for cold, sharp, metallic items). Her prison of the mind is made believable, but the cynic in me kept wondering, why didn’t she find out more about this guy before marrying him? (And, indeed, vice versa?)

Still, I was impressed by the film’s stifling atmosphere and by the fact that it addressed two very uncomfortable ideas: When can a rapist be forgiven? And what degree of agency can a woman have when it comes to aborting her own fetus? Props to the director for taking these bold stands, among others, in a debut feature.

Ode to Nothing

Ode to Nothing stillAfter an emotionally numbing hour and a half, it occurred to me that in many ways Dwein Ruedas Baltazar’s melodrama lived up to its title. (More puckishly, a fellow reviewer likened the plot to a “depressing Weekend at Bernie’s.“) It’s a beautiful movie: long takes from various specific angles allow for a slow-moving “still life” to flow hesitantly across the screen, their precision giving them a clinical elegance. (It is no coincidence, I should think, that the film is set at a funeral home in decline.) And it had an emotional effect: I was something at a loss for words when the credits began rolling, and anyone who knows me can tell you that that isn’t something that happens often. There were distinct moments of cute, black humor (which is a thing, I’ve learned), and the whole unhappy story ended on a mystical “magic fatalism” note. It’s with these conflicting impulses in mind that I guess I have to recommend Ode to Nothing to those of you out there who can enjoy a slow, slow build toward bleak resignation.

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