FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: THE LOOSE ENDS.

A roundup of less-weird but still notable genre films screening at this year’s digital-only Fantasia Film Festival. If the descriptions intrigue you, look out for these in the coming months (given the current climate, most likely as digital rentals or streaming options).

Yummy: Lars Damoiseaux’ debut feature is the inspirational story of a young medical school drop-out who bravely overcomes his fear of blood…

Nah. It’s actually a zombie/Resident Evil rehash brimming to the gills with Eurotrash sensibilities. (It even has a “Chazz“-archetype character featured prominently.) The hospital-based zombie party is kicked off by a visit of a young woman, her boyfriend, and her mother heading to a skeezy Eastern European hospital so she can get breast reduction surgery (she complains of a bad back and difficulty running, though the hooting and ogling of all passers-by en route to the facility suggest another motive). Once there, surprise surprise, things are not all that they seem…

In festivals prior, I’ve been told that for many filmmakers, horror movies are a reliable ticket into the field: they’re generally inexpensive to make and attract investors because they invariably recoup their money. Yummy is a nice, diverting bit of fun and gore, with at least two “firsts” as far as I know: a character loses his penis by fire extinguisher, and a surgeon jams his arm into a high-powered shredder to stop an infection. Walking into this at your local stream-a-plex, you will know exactly what you’re getting into, and won’t be disappointed.

Sanzaru: Filipino mysticism and Southern Gothic collide in Xia Magnus’ tale of creepy, creepy family history. Magnus manages to make the wide open spaces of Texas non-existent, setting all the action in her contemplative tale of ghosts and memories at one remote ranch. Evelyn is the live-in Filipina aid to aging and decrepifying Texan matriarch, Dena, who is suffering from dementia, and prone to fits of shouting at an unseen assailant in the wee hours of the night. Evelyn hears these disturbances, among other cryptic and unsettling sounds, on the house’s room-to-room intercom system.

Sanzaru gets plenty of bonus points for atmosphere, which goes a long way to make up for the lack of focus. The Texas family’s backstory is fascinating, and deeply unsettling once fully revealed, and could have been explored further. The strange supernatural conversations that break the film into its acts deftly capture their otherworldly nature. The ambiguous relationship between Evelyn and her nephew (?) Amos could also stand on its own as a story. These threads (as well as a couple of other side-tales) are woven together nicely enough, but far, far too briefly. Anyone who’s read Southern Gothic literature knows that you can’t cram that much mysticism and mystery into an eighty-seven minute film. However, if a movie leaves one begging for more, that’s saying something.

Sheep Without a Shepherd: Can you believe there’d be a Twin Peaks connection with a Chinese box-office smash about an affable IT installation guy? Even more baffling to me was the distinctly anti-authoritarian tone allowed in a movie produced by at least half-a-dozen different Chinese production companies, and necessarily cleared by the censors. The fact that it deals with low level graft— police grunt/police chief (Joan Chen)/mayoral candidate—might have allowed it to slip through.

Regardless, I had to give Sheep Without a Shepherd  a second chance (with thanks going out to this guy for nudging me in that direction), as the first time I had dismissed it out-of-hand after half an hour. I became quite pleased with its, shall we say, cinematic nature—our IT hero, Li Weijie, is a movie buff, and engineers an alibi for his family and himself after the accidental murder of the police chief’s son using a technique he calls “montage.” Some of the acting is heavy-handed, and some of the cinematography likewise, but I must admit that I found myself rooting for the little people being trodden on by a fist- and trigger-happy police force. (Hopefully the higher authorities in Shepherd‘s country of origin will one day step back from their own abuse of power… uh-huh.)

The Five Rules of Success:  When I finished Orson Oblowitz’s ex-con-turned-restaurant-worker movie, it occurred to me that perhaps the “ex-con” genre could do with a turning of the corner. At this point, I would find a film about an ex-con trying to do right and actually succeeding to be weird—and perhaps emotionally satisfying. Heaven knows I am no seeker of happy endings, but the ceaselessly bleak nature of that genre (which admittedly is generally appropriate) makes me wish someone would pick up the gauntlet I’ve just absent-mindedly thrown down.

The Five Rules of Success is pretty good, pretty well-acted, and pretty well-told. Avakian (Jon Sklaroff), is the stern-but-fair patriarchal owner of “The Olympus Restaurant.” He steals all his scenes with a wonderful blend of humanity, worldliness, and an edge of what I can only describe as “nerdy intimidation.” (This perhaps had to do with his glasses.) But the rest of the cast are hard to care too much about: “X” tries hard to overcome his prison life, until he doesn’t; his parole officer grows increasingly creepy; and Avakian’s ne’er-do-well son seems pointlessly idiotic and unaware (and also owns a pair of glow-soled shoes that match his tracksuit). These are mentionable complaints, but the movie packs a decent punch—and has an end goal for X that I was not expecting. Catch it if it’s streaming.

International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase: Kicking off the event is Marco Baldonado’s cute story about “Toto”, a robotic “digital companion.” Toto helps an Italian grandmother prepare an authentic, from-scratch pasta dinner for her granddaughter only to have the meal spurned; the whelp requests pizza instead. Things progress from there, but the only plot development to speak of is a software update authorized by the granddaughter (the grandmother previously waived it). Toto loses his settings, forgets about the pizza, and it burns. Cute movie, but I’m not sure what it was driving at. (Seeing how much space that little blurb burned up, I’ll save my further remarks for more remarkable shorts.)

In Skywatch, Colin Levy pulls out a big gun—for what I hope will be the introductory scene to a cheeky sci/fi action movie. Two boys are surreptitiously swapping deliveries—a fat man gets spinach and kale smoothie, while the nearby fitness lady gets his cheeseburger and fries—from super-high-tech delivery drones (“NexGen Delivery”) when one of the ‘bots crashes on their rooftop. Running diagnostics, they find that operation “Osprey” sets the drone into attack mode—and things start getting dystopian. Jude Law, in a cameo as a NexGen Delivery technician, discovers the lads’ laptop and hacking gear and wonderfully intones, “I’m gonna need some tech support,” turning the friendly blue of the delivery vehicles a menacing red.

Your Last Day on Earth has something of a Wes Anderson-feel, and not just because it features a fox-headed time traveler. (Specifically, the time-traveler wears an elaborate mask to pose as a “Save the Iberian Fox” activist to blend in with the past because… well, things get silly.) Marc Martinez Jordán hits a lot of humorous notes while addressing PTSD, survivor’s guilt, and time paradoxes, which is something of an accomplishment. Furthering this feat, the whole pathos-comedy was done on the cheap with what looks like Super-8 film and post-production voice-over. A worthy diversion.

Final Fantasia 2020 Comments: It was all over without ever really feeling like it started—but come to think of it, that’s how I felt each of the other summers I’ve covered Fantasia. Next year, here’s hoping the northern border is unsealed, because I feel like I’ve taken it too easy. Still, I hope that you enjoyed this remote coverage. Giles signing off.

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