Tag Archives: Fantasia Festival 2020

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: MUSING ON MEMORY – THE OAK ROOM (2020) AND KRIYA (2020)

Or, “Dead Dad Double Feature”

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Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

Happenstance, more than anything else, brought me a double feature that centered on the deaths of fathers. Cody Calahan’s The Oak Room is best described as a “Canadian thriller”: subdued, sparsely-populated, and blanketed in driving snow. Showing up after closing time at his father’s favourite bar, Steve requests his old man’s ashes. Paul, friend of the father, bartender, and all-around bastard, has them—in a tackle box. But he demands that Steve pay up “what he owes” before handing them over.

The Oak Room‘s action takes place in two different, but eerily similar-looking drinking dens. What seems a simple story of a ne’er-do-well son returning after his father’s death becomes a collection of stories: Steve’s story about “the Oak Room”, Paul’s story about Steve’s father’s story about hitch-hiking in his 20s, Tommy Coward’s story about the goings-on in the Oak Room, and, twice, Michael’s story about his father’s pig farm. For those counting at home, that’s five interlocking pieces of one narrative—each unlocking a piece of a puzzle. By the time the unclear ending rolls around, each narrators’ unreliability sloshes into the stew of truth and fiction, and the film’s seemingly scant body count may rise. Or, is Steve—seemingly some kind of idiot drifter—merely harnessing the power of storytelling to trick the bitter bartender?

In Sidharth Srinivasan’s Kriya, a DJ named Neel gets more than he bargained for when he returns to the home of Sitara, a fiercely attractive young woman who catches his eye. Expecting sex, instead he finds he’s been drafted into being a male mourner for her father’s death rites. Sitara’s family is incredibly traditional, and Hindu tradition demands that the father’s son lead the ceremonies. But Neel is not this man’s son—and he realises too late that he’s gotten roped (at times, literally) into an attempt by the family to break a generations’-long curse. Pity poor Neel.

The Oak Room is obviously a thriller, and Kriya is obviously a horror movie, but they stand out in the same manner that they stand together: both meditate on the death of a patriarch, and both explore the vagaries of human memory and tradition. Steve’s father, Gord, told stories; his son does the same. It is an attempt to make sense of things, perhaps improving on the past through retelling (“goosing the truth”, as explained by bartender Paul). Kriya echoes this technique of ritualizing a narrative through repetition, focusing much more blatantly on rites—centuries old, in this case. Kriya‘s first third is almost entirely devoted to the death rites of Sitara’s dying father; it’s final third is almost entirely devoted to the magical rites that relate to the family curse.

The thread tying these films together–films made 7,000 miles apart, about two very different cultures–was a reminder of why I love cinema and how it underscores the universality of humankind’s need to tell stories. It has been no small relief that even though Fantasia’s festival trappings have been canceled this year, the stories continue.

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020 CAPSULE: TEZUKA’S BARBARA (2019)

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Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

DIRECTED BY: Macoto Tezuka

FEATURING: Gorô Inagaki, Fumi Nikaidô

PLOT: Yosuke Mikura, a popular writer facing a creative lull, meets Barbara and develops an obsession with her.

COMMENTS: Damn it, Barbara, you were so very close. Your devil-may-care manic-pixie-dream-girl self was crafted by one of Japan’s most renowned manga artists. You were brought to life in a ragged city milieu, spouting poetry. You toyed so mischievously with the mind of a famous young writer. Your mother constantly wore a helmet-hat made out of cherry cordials. You knocked back 50-year-old single malt Scotch like the pro I always wanted to be. And you just up and dropped the frickin’ ball—right on my eyeball.

It is only because I want to give Osamu Tezuka a fair shake in the future that I won’t hold Tezuka’s Barbara against him. His work might someday actually achieve the weirdness I was looking for, instead of just shamelessly flirting with it. Yosuke is a dull cipher of a protagonist, but that’s fine; all the better to provide the viewer a lens through which to witness the following: frantic lovemaking to a living mannequin cut short by a deft, head-removing smack from a liquor bottle; unsettling voodoo-doll machinations targeted against Barbara’s romantic rival; sociopolitical commentary in the form of Yosuke’s scheming fiancée’s scheming-er father; an all-nude “old religion,” hyper-ritualized with body-oiling wedding ceremony; and promises of necrophilia followed by a cannibalistic snack. But everything collapses into gauzy, melodramatic mush.

If you hear bitterness in my tone, I can assure you it’s there. I had the Apocrypha Candidate review all lined up in my head as I watched Barbara. I was going to compare it to Naked Lunch, due to the films’ shared urban filth and dissonant jazz score. I was going to quip that “Barbara is exactly the girl that Céline and Julie would have met and eaten strange candies with during their Junior year abroad.” Now, I won’t be able to revel in the clever observations about how Barbara captured low-literary romance with high production values.

Instead, I found myself on tenterhooks waiting for the movie’s half-dozen-plus weird ingredients to turn the corner; “weirdus interruptus” doesn’t even begin to describe the disappointment. This is a review written out of spite, and I wouldn’t blame management for not posting it. However, as Yosuke needed to get Barbara out of his system, I desperately needed to get Barbara out of mine.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… an exceedingly bizarre love story that is too distanced to be moving, but still has its visual and other pleasures..” -Deborah Young, The Hollywood Reporter (festival screening)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: LABYRINTH OF CINEMA (2019)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Takuro Atsuki, Rei Yoshida, Yukihiro Takahashi, Takato Hosoyamada, Yoshihiko Hosoda,

PLOT: Japanese teenagers find themselves thrown into the movies screening at a cinema on the last night before it closes.

Still from Labyrinth of Cinema (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Nobuhiko Obayashi’s final movie, completed only months before his death, is an exuberant, monumental, poetic and surreal ode to the power of cinema.

COMMENTS: I’d advise letting yourself get lost inside Nobuhiko Obayashi‘s Labyrinth of Cinema. Due to the way it hops around between eras and genres, the story may be easier to follow for those familiar with pre-WWII Japanese cinema; but given that the movie begins by introducing one Fanta G, a time-traveler who arrives in modern-day Onomichi, Japan, in a spaceship with goldfish floating inside it, it’s fair to say that narrative logic is not uppermost on Obayashi’s mind. This is a movie with atmosphere to absorb and imagery to intoxicate.

“Movies are a cutting edge time machine,” Fanta G tells us. “You’ll experience time lags in this movie.” You have been fairly warned. After he lands his spacecraft in the harbor and makes his way to Onomichi’s only cinema for the all-night war movie marathon, we’re introduced to the rest of the main characters. Noriko is a 13-year old schoolgirl from a nearby island who almost always appears onscreen bathed in an idyllic blue light. Teenage film buff “Mario Baba” is smitten with her; he sits in the audience with two companions, a nerdy aspiring historian and the son of a monk who intends to become a yakuza. As the first feature begins, Noriko climbs onstage and begins tap dancing in front of the screen; when she hops into the film itself, no one in the audience bats an eye. The three boys soon find themselves mysteriously absorbed into the screen, as well. But the movie keeps changing, and the trio find themselves involved in musicals, samurai films, and wartime adventures, playing out various scenarios, but always pursuing Noriko, who serves both as damsel in distress and an ever-receding symbol of the epiphanic power of cinema itself. The skipping-through-film-history format plays out like a live action variation on Millennium Actress, but with an even more dislocated plot.

Most long movies are slow-paced, languorously stretching out to fill the available time, but Labyrinth of Cinema jets like a rocket through its three-hour tour of Japanese cinema. This makes it exhilarating, but also a little exhausting. Besides the constantly shifting plots—the teenage trio find themselves in new roles, facing new adversaries, every five minutes or so—Obayashi constantly switches styles. He recreates traditional genres, but also throws his own immersion-breaking visual trickery onscreen: vertical wipes, big blocks of primary color, actors enclosed in circular irises that resemble the Japanese flag, blazing computer-generated sunsets, and sidebar text commenting on the action (when one character first appears, he shows us a legend cheekily explaining “we don’t know his name yet”). Along the way we get plenty of the surreal touches we’d expect from the mind that gave us Hausu, including a piano tune played by bullets, and an emotional death scene with a woman who just happens to be sporting a Hitler mustache. Many such surprises lurk inside this maze of movies.

The pace slows a bit after intermission as the story makes its way towards its climax at Hiroshima. A strong and consistently humanist anti-war theme runs through the entire film, but the main focus is always on the cinematic form itself. Labyrinth of Cinema is an ode to the ways in which movies both distort and inform reality; it’s Obayashi‘s love letter to the art to which he devoted his life, shown as much from the perspective of a fan as of a craftsman. While doubtlessly the epic could have been edited down for clarity—and might have been, had Obayashi survived to tinker with it further—much of the movie’s ramshackle extravagance would have been lost. I’m not sure we would want to lose a single second of Obayashi’s last gift to the world.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…bursting with energy, passion and dreamlike invention… the border between reality and fantasy dissolves into a colorful alternative universe that is uniquely Obayashi’s.”–Mark Schilling, Japan Times (contemporaneous)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: TIME OF MOULTING (2020)

Fellwechselzeit

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Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

DIRECTED BY: Sabrina Mertens

FEATURING: Zelda Espenschied, Miriam Schiweck, Freya Kreutzkam

PLOT: Stephanie grows up with her eccentric, sickly mother and her “present-but-absent” father, becoming a troubled teenager.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Teutonic-degrees of mise-en-scène fastidious, tormentingly oblique dialogue, and an unflinching obsession with medium shots make Time of Moulting far too enigmatic and unnerving to fall into mere “arthouse”-levels of weirdness.

COMMENTS: The stifling warmth in this room and the ominous thunder and lightning outside is an appropriate environment for writing this review of Sabrina Mertens’ directorial debut. Time of Moulting is dark, oppressive, and ominous. It’s a slender movie, merely eighty minutes long, but every slice of it—dozens of fixed-camera, “photograph”-style cuts—drip a slow build of tension, like a viscous ooze that is gradually filling a dust-covered bottle. By the finish, I was torn between scratching my head in confusion and hugging myself in despair.

Stephanie (played by a charming Zelda Espenschied as a young child, and a surly Miriam Schiweck “tens years later”) is raised by two parents who have no business having children. The mother (Freya Kreutzkam, never far from despair-induced collapse) suffers from an unspecified medical condition—one both mental and physical, probably. The father makes it clear early on he has no patience for his daughter. Young Stephanie takes solace in exploring the mysteries hidden away in the increasingly untidy house, particularly the trunk full of her grandfather’s butcher’s equipment; older Stephanie takes far more sinister “comfort” in the tools found therein.

By IMDb’s count, there are 57 vignettes adding up to a cryptic whole. By my count, there are only two close-ups: one shot of false teeth creepily snapping shut, and one of liver curling while being fried upon a skillet. The recurrence of meat—always raw—is never a good sign in movies. In Time of Moulting it takes on a more abstract but equally sinister imagery. Young Stephanie arranges two slices of something almost origami-like on a plate; later in life she takes to drawing some truly grisly scenes of death, and even cannibalism.

But Time of Moulting’s horror elements take a back seat to the oppressive formalism of the whole affair, lingering in the many shadows with a quietly sadistic grin. I have never felt so unnerved by medium shots. You see everything going on in the scene, but that only makes the goings-on eerily detached. By this point in the review, I’ve realized that I am not communicating the movie’s aura as well as I would like; but that just reaffirms my position that Time of Moulting is a truly strange take on horror, art-house, and melodrama.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The film is subtle to the point that we lose many of the narrative points that lead to the character feeling how she feels and doing what she does. It comes across as unqualified and strangely out of place as the film plods towards its underwhelming finale..” -Hunter Heilman, Elements of Madness (festival screening)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020 CAPSULE: TINY TIM: KING FOR A DAY (2020)

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Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Johan von Sydow

FEATURING: Tiny Tim,

PLOT: Johan von Sydow chronicles the improbable rise and unfortunate fall of ’60s icon Herbert Butros Khaury, aka “Tiny Tim”.

COMMENTS: Beginning and ending his career as a mere circus performer, Herbert Butros Khaury nonetheless hit it big—nay, hit it huge—as the nebulous singer and cultural icon “Tiny Tim.” Ukulele in hand and falsetto in throat, he captured the hearts of the American people for a few glorious years in the late ’60s through early ’70s. His first wedding garnered a viewership of between forty- and fifty-million people when broadcast live on “The Johnny Carson Show,” a record exceeded at the time only by the ratings for the lunar landing.

That fact and many others are courtesy of Johan von Sydow’s well-researched and rather moving documentary, Tiny Tim: King for a Day. Chronicling Herbert Khaury’s semi-tragic childhood, joyful period of success, and ending with his semi-tragic decline (both in popularity and in health), Tiny Tim is a very straight-forward film about one of the strangest popular phenomena of the 20th century. Herbert Khaury was one of those celebrities who are only ever “real” when on stage, and his private life was a cavalcade of sadness and discomfort as he tried and failed to tone himself down for mundane day-to-day activities like love, friendship, and business.

Most people know only the stage name of the man, and maybe his break-out hit “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” I knew about him primarily through his board game, “The Tiny Tim Game of Beautiful Things.” But this performer was known by all kinds of big names. Influential television producer George Schlatter, documentarian D.A. Pennebaker, Tommy James (of “and the Shondells” fame), and Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, & Mary) all had kind words to say about this strange, wonderful man. Even famous fringe artists Jonas Mekas and Wavy Gravy chime in at length—the latter providing an hilarious anecdote about the time he and a buddy saved Khaury from an encounter with the mob.

Tiny Tim: King for a Day is a “talking heads” kind of affair, but it is made novel in a couple of ways. Most strikingly, there are animated segments depicting experiences chronicled in Khaury’s personal diary (these are narrated impressively by none other than ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, who I imagine leapt at the chance to be involved with this picture). They provide an intimate grounding of the man behind the persona. And von Sydow’s choice to avoid close-ups when recording the “talking heads” pays off handsomely, as you can see each of the commentators in their natural habitat. The contrast between executive Schattler’s organized award statues and “power desk” and Wavy Gravy’s obscenely cluttered study deftly illustrates the variety of Khaury’s friends and associates. The documentary is thorough, but short; appropriate, I feel, for a man known to the world as “Tiny Tim.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an energetic, wildly creative account of an inimitable figure who lived an almost unbelievable life.”–Christopher Schobert, The Film Stage (festival screening)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020 CAPSULE: FRIED BARRY (2020)

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Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

DIRECTED BY: Ryan Kruger

FEATURING: Gary Green

PLOT: Heroin addict Barry is possessed by a creature from outer space.

Still from Fried Barry (2020)

COMMENTS: Looking like a pre-mortem Crypt Keeper but with a glorious goatee, Gary Green’s gaunt visage may be Fried Barry‘s greatest asset. It’s not surprising that someone would want to build a film around that face, even if for most of the movie it does nothing but stare blankly. Balding, but with long stringy hair (and thin, but with a surprisingly cut physique), Green looks the part of a deteriorating addict under constant threat of eviction. I enjoyed looking at that face even when the attached film dragged it into shaggy, often improvised vignettes.

The movie begins with “adults only and no one else!” content disclaimer promising (er, I mean, warning of) “explicit language, nudity, and strong scenes of high impact sexual violence…” The explicit language box is simple enough to check off. There is nudity—and some awkward fully-clothed sex—because, apparently, bedraggled aliens with bug-eyed stares attract the ladies like flies. There is also plenty of violence, but not really any “high impact” sexual violence (it’s indirect, homophobic sexual violence). There is, on the other hand, a lot of senseless non-sexual violence—including an uncharacteristic detour into torture porn that ends in a chainsaw battle—if that counts for anything. What the presenter in the opening didn’t warn about was the public toilet sex, hospital corridor pooping, or adult breastfeeding. Or the hard drug porn: whether it be old-fashioned shooting up, complementary club ecstasy, or random junk smoked out of a light bulb, all of Barry’s friends (and about half of the random strangers he meets on the street) want to get him high for free. And what the presenter especially doesn’t warn you about is the insta-birth alien conception scene…

In other words, Fried Barry‘s exploitation credentials check out. There are also decent dollops of weirdness in its nearly structureless runtime. Ten minutes into the movie Barry shoots up, finds himself submerged underwater, has flashbacks, sees colored lights, and levitates into the heavens. Then, some weird stuff happens in what we assume is an alien spacecraft. After returning to Earth, he takes a few more psychedelic trips, becomes a dad, uses his eyelids as remote controls, has visions of an old guy singing in tongues while doing a soft-shoe routine, and makes a highly illogical escape from the loony bin. These snatches of madness break up his odd encounters with various prostitutes, lowlifes, and eerily cheerful cheese-sample pushers.

Fried Barry is part of a mini-tradition of movies about mute or verbally challenged outsiders/aliens wandering about urban areas, holding up mirror to society. There’s more than a little Bad Boy Bubby (1993) here: Barry speaks no dialogue save what he repeats, and his son is even named “Bubby,” in what surely must be a tribute. Barry also can heal like the Brother from Another Planet (1984); at least, he does so once. There’s a touch of Under the Skin (2013), too, and maybe even a drop of Liquid Sky (1982). For all the nods, Fried Barry brings nothing new to this particular table. What it especially doesn’t bring is any kind of visible ideas. Barry’s ordeal is most naturally viewed as one long, drug-induced psychosis. If you take the story at face value, it’s a sci-fi film about aliens who travel across the inky blackness of space to South Africa so they can possess heroin addicts and… who don’t have much of a plan beyond that. Fried Barry won’t give you any great sociological or existential insights, but if it’s a mindbending trip to the outer limits of consciousness you’re after, it’s a lot safer than sticking a needle in your arm—or being beamed up by saucers.

Giles Edwards adds: Fried Barry left me feeling that pleasantly odd, detached sensation I get when I watch a weird movie, and so I make this pitch on its behalf for Apocryphizing. The lead’s performance alone is a continuous oddity–almost 100 minutes of jittery reactions. Gary Green is always interesting to look at, and observing his “Barry” go through four drug overdoses (that I could count) was impressive. With virtually no dialogue for his character, it was like watching the half-awake facsimile of Dale Cooper of Twin Peaks: the Return stumble, dance, and twitch through two jam-packed days full of run-ins with thugs, unlikely escapes, and even the daring rescue of a dozen kidnapped children.

The lighting and score of Fried Barry supplement Green’s spastic tics, rendering his forty-eight-hour (?) journey somewhere between reality and unreality, further rendering the unreal somewhere between an exalted and sinister dream. In particular, Barry’s abduction comes across as an unsettling fusion of 2001: A Space Odyssey and a H.R. Geiger-saturated nightmare. The pulsing electro-score and violently-hued color schemes add a shining varnish to Barry’s jerking physical flow. When the ominous “Intermission” sequence spooled on-screen, I finally gave up on trying to guess where the heck this movie was going and let myself sit back to enjoy the wild fried.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a trippy exploration of mankind.”–Norman Gidney, Horror Buzz

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020 CAPSULE: CLIMATE OF THE HUNTER (2019)

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Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Ginger Gilmartin, Mary Buss,

PLOT: Two sisters in their autumn years await the arrival of a childhood friend for whom they each have romantic ambitions.

COMMENTS: There is an elegance to the “Academy ratio” that has by and large been abandoned since the mass television market adopted “widescreen” (in particular, 16:9) as the standard ratio. The classic 4:3 ratio, found in older films and prevalent through much of television’s history, allows for an intimacy that is lost in typical widescreen extravaganzas. The extra frame space can be useful for many genres—from art-house films, with their precision framing and staging, to action films, with their need for as much visual noise as possible—but melodramas benefit greatly from the Academy ratio’s truncatedness: the focus is put right on to the characters as they interact.

This intimacy is among the many throwback elements found in Mickey Reece’s Climate of the Hunter. Another is stylized dialogue, as exemplified by the nebulous love interest, Wes (played with supreme suavité by Ben Hall). A writer by a profession, and a vampire by rumor, Wes’ fluorishes and bons mots might come across as stilted, but never quite sound unreal. This brings me to the third trick up Reece’s sleeve: he makes  Climate feel like a high-end soap opera that’s been cranked up–but just a little bit. It never feels like parody, but walks ever so precariously along that knife-edge.

Climate of the Hunter is little more than a stylish oddity, but I felt compelled to bring it to your attention because it not only bumps up just below the “Recommended” mark, but also the “Apocrypha Candidate” mark. The love triangle between Wes and the two sisters plays like riffing on , with each of their styles grounding the others’ particular excesses. The film’s few defects (an unpleasantly tone-jarring “mini-montage” when the crazier sister gears up for a vampire-hunting encounter is almost a body-blow to the movie) are forgivable given the otherwise flawless atmosphere of high melodrama and playful art-house. Such presentational precision, harnessed for such an unclear story, makes Climate of the Hunter worth a look for anyone who realizes that a vampire’s life must be a deft mixture of the ornate and the dishonest.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I’m not gonna lie, folks. Climate of the Hunter is weird. It’s so incredibly weird… And yet. I found it incredibly watchable and could not hit stop…”–Terry Mesnard, Gayly Dreadful (festival screening)