Review by Sean Boelman
The Fantasia International Film Festival has long been a refuge for fans of genre cinema to check out some of the best in weird and obscure filmmaking from around the world. In 2020, the festival pivoted to an all-online format, allowing cinephiles across Canada to check out virtual screenings of some of the most exciting films in the lineup. However, with theaters being able to re-open, the 2021 edition was able to pivot to a hybrid format, including both online and in-person offerings.
We at disappointment media are excited to be covering Fantasia remotely for the second year in a row! As we screen the film selected for this year’s lineup, we will be updating this article with capsule reviews offering our brief thoughts on the films. Hopefully this will inspire you to check out some of the awesome movies you can see there!
The Last Thing Mary Saw
Edoardo Vitaletti’s film The Last Thing Mary Saw may be billed as a horror movie, but it shares more in common with a period drama than the supernatural aspects of its story that festival-goers were probably expecting. It’s not particularly scary, nor is it especially original, but the commentary on the oppression of women is at least mostly interesting. That said, the film doesn’t take full advantage of its extremely talented ensemble cast including Isabelle Fuhrman and Rory Culkin.
All the Moons
The vampire drama All the Moons is one of the most gorgeous films of this year’s Fantasia lineup. With a gorgeous level of period detail and some excellent cinematography, it’s an entrancing feature. Admittedly, the film works more on a visual level than a narrative one, but there are still some emotional beats that resonate very strongly. It’s definitely reminiscent of a lot of films that have come before, and are perhaps better, but it’s a very effective addition to the genre nevertheless.
Frank & Zed
Jesse Blanchard’s puppet horror feature Frank & Zed is the type of film that one can’t help but appreciate even if they don’t entirely align with its sensibilities. It’s generally a fun time, but the film loses sight of the buddy comedy that makes the first half so endearing as it turns into a gory marathon of carnage for the final thirty minutes. The level of craftsmanship on display in the puppet animation is definitely impressive, and this would have been an absolute masterpiece had Blanchard’s script been as polished as his filmmaking.
Hayop Ka! The Nimfa Dimaano Story
Hayop Ka! The Nimfa Dimaano Story is an excellent reminder of the tremendous potential that independent adult animation has. A hilarious soap opera parody, the film doesn’t aim for the low-hanging fruit in poking fun at one of the lowest art forms there is. But the real success of the film is the way in which it creates a genuine emotional connection to these characters. Even though it’s obviously melodramatic (on purpose), the genuine heart in the film is absolutely charming and unexpected.
Kelsey Egan’s film Glasshouse is very reminiscent of The Beguiled in terms of its plot, but with an immersive sci-fi touch to it. The most impressive part of Egan’s film is the way in which it builds the world of the story, both through the writing and the production design. It’s definitely a tad on the predictable side because of how familiar the story is, but there’s enough going on in the story on a thematic level for it to be intellectually challenging.
Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes
Junta Yamaguchi’s time travel comedy Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes is arguably one of the most creative films to play at the festival, and while it is far from perfect, it’s an absolute load of fun from start to finish. It can be confusing and a bit difficult to follow at times, but the ambition that this has as a lo-fi sci-fi comedy is very impressive, especially given the fact that it is both a directorial debut and a pandemic feature.
The Screenlife format developed and innovated by Timur Bekmambetov tends to be more conducive to some stories than others, and the Russian thriller #Blue_Whale is on the more successful end of that spectrum. Although it has its fair share of flaws, this story of a teen investigating a deadly social media game that drove her younger sister to suicide is consistently involving. Admittedly, it’s very predictable, the big twist in the final act being entirely expected, but it’s still entertaining regardless.
For an occult coming-of-age story, the Adams Family’s Hellbender works extremely well. Sure, the effects aren’t the best, and sometimes even draw the viewer out of the story, but the intensely independent feel of the film is part of what makes it so charming. It may not say anything new about suppressing one’s own identity, but its message is still one that will resonate with teens and people who remember their teenage years, and it is delivered in a way that is quite entertaining.
Masashi Yamamoto’s Wonderful Paradise is perhaps one of the most wild films to screen at this year’s Fantasia, and that’s a high bar with some of the weird movies that were part of the lineup. It’s a film that gets crazier and crazier as it goes on, starting as something random and getting to some hilariously bizarre and occasionally messed up places by the end. The thing that is lacking here is character development, as viewers won’t care much about the story, but it’s an enjoyable watch nevertheless.
The increasing prominence of Brazilian genre cinema has been an exciting trend for cinephiles, and so Renata Pinheiro’s King Car was set to be one of the most intriguing titles of Fantasia this year. And while the wacky concept, immersive production design, and some inspired scenes show that there is no lack of creativity on display, the thing that is missing is a sense of humor. The film takes itself way too seriously rather than embracing the inherent absurdity of the premise, and the result is a film that is nowhere near as fun as it should be.
The 12 Day Tale of the Monster That Died in 8
Shunji Iwai’s pandemic comedy The 12 Day Tale of the Monster That Died in 8 is a cute little movie. Perhaps it’s something that is lost in translation, but it’s hard to find much in the way of laughter in a series of uber-specific in-jokes. Still, watching this is effectively like watching an hour and a half of nerds talking about kaiju, and there’s something charming in the level of love and detail put into it. Additionally, while the metaphors used in the film are certainly on-the-nose, it’s a message that is just as urgent now as it was when this was made a year ago.
On the 3rd Day
Latin American horror has very unique sensibilities to it, and On the 3rd Day sees them in full display. The portions of the film that work the best here are the character-driven ones, following a desperate mother trying to reunite with her son, as a lot of the emotional beats resonare unexpectedly well. However, the supernatural elements aren’t nearly as strong, offering a solid and sometimes even hypnotic atmosphere but not much in the way of genuine scares.
Ghost stories tend to lend themselves well to quiet horror films that skew more towards the dramatic rather than the scary ones, and that is the success of Ruth Platt’s Martyrs Lane. The film may drag a bit at times, but Platt does an excellent job of capturing a surreal and occasionally nightmarish atmosphere that will immerse the viewer in the story. The things that the film has to say about guilt and trauma aren’t particularly original, but are delivered with plenty enough emotional authenticity for it to work.
Based on the graphic novel Samurai Shiro, the Brazilian-Japanese film Yakuza Princess suffers from coming out around the same time as two similar, bigger-budget films. It’s the story of an attractive young person discovering their family’s dark and violent past and connections to a shadow organization, hitting many of the same beats as Snake Eyes and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Japanese pop star MASUMI gives a solid enough performance, Jonathan Rhys Meyers is largely unimpressive, and the action sequences and effects are rather strong, but the script is so dull that it doesn’t work.
Hand Rolled Cigarette
Kin Long Chan’s crime drama/thriller Hand Rolled Cigarette was released to great acclaim in its home country, likely due to the fact that it owes so much to the classics of Hong Kong cinema. However, this meandering and occasionally pretentious film doesn’t have enough investment in its characters to justify its slow pacing. The visual style of the film is strong, culminating in a great action sequence which shows the potential it had, but a solid landing doesn’t make the preceding hour and twenty minutes worth watching.
The Unknown Man of Shandigor
In addition to debuting some of the most exciting new genre films, Fantasia is known for premiering new restorations of obscure classics from around the world. The once-lost espionage thriller The Unknown Man of Shandigor is one of the hidden gems of this year’s festival. Although the plot is somehow both generic and altogether too convoluted at the same time, the excellent world building of Jean-Louis Roy makes this a standout within the genre. And a fabulous performance from the legendary Serge Gainsbourg is worth watching the film for alone.
Returning to the festival after having debuted there four years ago, Takahide Hori’s stop-motion animation film Junk Head is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious films to play at this year’s Fantasia, if only because of how much effort and craftsmanship went into it. From a narrative standpoint, the film is perhaps a bit too complicated, taking its rather simple story and expanding upon it in a way that is occasionally confusing. However, the intricacies of the animation technique are certainly very impressive, as is the commentary that Hori offers on his themes.
Filmmaker John Swab has made a few B-movie crime flicks, and while his newest film Ida Red is probably his most professional-looking yet, it’s also his most forgettable. A passable drama/thriller about two criminal brothers pulling off one last job, there are some solid action sequences here, but the story is so generic that it feels like any other movie that we have seen before. The only element here that truly stands out is the cast, with great performances from Josh Hartnett, Frank Grillo, and Melissa Leo. Grillo, in particular, is at the top of his game, showing how excellent he could be given stronger material.
When I Consume You
A unique thing about the horror genre is that complexity does not always equal effectiveness. Perry Blackshear’s When I Consume You is certainly an ambitious film, mixing a revenge thriller storyline with elements of family drama and supernatural horror. It’s an interesting combination, and there are some moments of genuine emotion throughout, but they are buried in a needlessly convoluted script. It’s the type of film that has the bones it takes to be something great, but needed an additional rewrite to fully capture its potential.
Don't Say Its Name
One of the weakest links of last year’s festival was an eco-horror film, and fans of the genre hoping that Don’t Say Its Name would offer some sort of redemption will be disappointed. Ruben Martell’s indigenous horror film certainly deals with some very important issues, but it addresses them in a way that is so sloppy that the (quite overt) message doesn’t connect at all. This messy blend of ghost and slasher tropes offers a few cool kills, but a script that is so rudimentary to the point of being almost laughable.
When one thinks of genre film festivals, the mind likely initially goes to horror, but it is often the weird dark comedies that tend to impress the most and Maxwell McCabe-Lokos’s Stanleyville is one such film. Centered around a contest to win a car and possibly some form of self-actualization along with it, the first hour or so is quite funny, even if it does feel somewhat random, but the final act brings all of the themes full-circle and delivers in an unhinged and entertaining way.
The Righteous, the feature debut of writer-director Mark O’Brien re-teams him with his Ready or Not costar Henry Czerny. However, despite Czerny’s absolutely fantastic performance, this horror story of a spiritual crisis suffers from glacial pacing and themes that feel all like they have been done many times before. Crisp black-and-white visuals go a long way in creating the atmosphere, and O’Brien’s direction is strong as a whole, but solid craftsmanship alone can’t elevate an unsatisfying script into a memorable psychological horror film.
You Can't Kill Meme
One of the sleeper hits of last year’s Fantasia was Feels Good Man, a documentary which explored the origins and history of the Pepe the Frog meme. Apparently in a bid to recapture the magic of exploring viral sensations, the festival programmed Hayley Garrigus’s You Can’t Kill Meme, and it’s nowhere near as interesting or effective. Supposedly a deep-dive into the darker side of the internet and how memes influenced the political landscape in America, this is just an unpleasant mess of ramblings and conspiracy theories.
The Uruguayan romantic comedy Ghosting Gloria has a premise that sounds like it could be very funny, but in execution, amounts to little more than the scene in Ghostbusters where Dan Aykroyd gets a bj from a ghost stretched into a two-hour movie. Some interesting character work aside, the film isn’t deep enough to make more than an interesting short. That said, Stefania Tortorella’s absolutely charming performance makes the film a genuinely agreeable, and occasionally genuinely funny watch.
As far as thriller storylines go, Travis Taute’s script for Indemnity is about as basic as they come, as it follows a man on the run after he is framed by a conspiracy that he doesn’t quite understand. That isn’t to say that the film isn’t entertaining — there’s enough action to keep the film moving for the entirety of its two-hour runtime. There are some interesting (albeit surface-level) themes exploring PTSD and the lack of support that people suffering have from the government, but these are, perhaps ironically, abandoned in favor of popcorn entertainment.
Giving Birth to a Butterfly
If nothing else, Giving Birth to a Butterfly proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that filmmaker Theodore Schaefer is one to watch. Admittedly, the script does meander on more than one occasion, but this family drama is compelling through and through thanks to some exceptional character work and strong performances from Annie Parisse and Gus Birney. The visual style is very well-defined, if a bit on the pretentious side, but it does a great job of immersing the viewer in this slightly off-kilter world.
Every festival — especially those that are devoted specifically to niche cinema — is destined to have at least one film that isn’t even going to come close to resonating with all audiences. The Belgian film Hotel Poseidon seems destined to be a contender for the title of most divisive film to come out of Fantasia. Some may love this grimy and occasionally hypnotic riff on The Shining, but others will be frustrated by its derivative and meandering plot. Unfortunately, while director Stefan Lernous’s craft is certainly respectable, we still found ourselves to be a part of the latter group.
Satoshi Kon, The Illusionist
Anime filmmaker Satoshi Kon made a mere four feature films in his short but acclaimed career, and documentarian Pascal-Alex Vincent hopes to pay tribute to him with his film Satoshi Kon, The Illusionist. Basic in its execution but powerful in its content, Vincent’s documentary features plenty of well-known American, Japanese, and French filmmakers talking about Kon’s filmography and how the master influenced their own work. It’s sure to be an interesting watch for anyone who already loves Kon’s films, and seems likely to win the director over a few new converts.
The 2021 Fantasia Film Festival runs August 5-25.
The Snake Hole
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