This was my first year at Fantasia International Film Festival, and I have to say I was truly impressed by the diversity of the programming. The festival collects genre films from all over the world, bringing together a more varied list of voices than any other festival I’ve been to. A few of them do not live up to the others (as cool as it was to see Nigerian genre film, Ojuju, I couldn’t help but think the whole time there had to be BETTER films available than that one, which seemed selected more for its provenance than its capabilities. In fact, much more entertaining and effective films from Africa, “Who Killed Captain Alex?” and “Crumbs” proved this point). I tried to see as much as I could, having come across a few of these titles at Fantastic Fest 2014, SXSW or Sundance, but mostly finding titles making their world or north American premieres (or I had just somehow missed).

What follows is my Fantasia experience in fives. Five films I loved, five films that failed, and five that frustrated, either because they started so well and then blew it, or because they were missing one or two critical elements. I’m not including anything on this list that I’ve already written about, or saw at another festival.

FIVE FAVORITES

Five: HARUKO’S PARANORMAL LABORARY – a quirky Japanese film that feels a bit like a Michael Gondry film but never gets lost in own production design and concept (like his often do). The film features a UFO-enthusiast whose TV comes alive and they develop a relationship. Its funny and sweet and the world it creates is consistent in its bizarreness. The lead actress has a lot of spark and doesn’t fall into the usual trap of most Japanese genre films where the women are just running from something out to kill them (actually, that’s a global issue, but see TAG below for why its on my mind). This is a film that should please everyone and offend no one, a rarity at a genre fest.

Four: LADY PYSCHO KILLER – basically a sorority girl American Psycho, this film follows the sexual awakening of a virgin who channels her energies into killing all the creepy men around her. Its funny, and its hot, which goes a long way for me. I will say there is entirely too much voice over than doesn’t add anything, and there a couple weird leaps in the script, mostly having to do with her missing father, that feel like a storyline was added or dropped at the last minute and they are writing around it. Still, the lead has a tremendous amount of charm, and Ron Jeremy makes a brilliant cameo as a strip club owner.

Three: ASSASSINATION CLASSROOM – a funny Japanese SciFi about an alien creature that threatens the earth but offers to teach a class of misfit child assassins to see if they can figure out how to kill him. Its basically “Lean on Me” meets “Sucker Punch.” The alien is intentionally ridiculous looking and the combat is pretty family friendly, but the story is original and the class is full of fun characters. The film has a really nice structure where we are introduced to the class and all their talents, which all pay off in their final attack on teacher, using tactics learned from teacher himself. My only complaint is that its ending ssuggests a sequel, which I wanted right then.

Two: SUNRISE – a gritty Indian film noir about a detective working a child trafficking case, still haunted by shadows of his own missing daughter. One of the most beautiful films at Fantasia, the characters have vivid lives and backstories and the film never rushes to get to action, while still provides all the tension and chase a film like this needs. But really its all about mood and tone. Shot in the slums, with leering buildings surrounding the crooked pavement of the alley, often pelted by rain, “Sunrise,” in its title alone, seems devoid of hope, yet always searching for it.

One: THE SHAMER’S DAUGHTER – by far the best thing I saw at Fantasia, and basically the best fantasy since THE TWO TOWERS, this Danish film is an adaptation of a popular young adult series about a medieval ‘witch’ whose ‘magic’ is to be able to look deep into your soul and make you admit things you feel guilty about. It’s a really neat conceit because it’s simple so it doesn’t change the world too much. Shamers are on the outskirts of society, feared by common folk but called upon by leaders when they need to get to the truth of something. Past the setup, the production design of the film is amazing, every costume, every set, even the CGI dragons which have their own original look to them. The characters are all well-drawn with lots of growth and there is a charm and joy to this film I haven’t seen in a long time. It frustrates me that Hollywood spends years on trash like Seventh Son, when this exists and needs to be seen by everyone. I really hope this plays Fantastic Fest so I can see it again.

Honorable Mention: The Hallow, Cooties, Raiders!, Turbo Kid, Haemoo, Cop Car, The Invitation, Ava’s Possessions, Deathgasm, They Look Like People, We Are Still Here, The Editor, Excess Flesh – all films I saw at prior festivals.

Even more honorable mention: Boy 7, Synchronicity, Director’s Commentary: The Terror of Frankenstein, films I covered in depth earlier

FIVE FAILS

Five: BITE — forgiving it the really terrible found footage opening (and interspersed throughout), sequences that looked like they were shot by a 5th grader, the film itself is just gross for the sake of gross. A girl on a bachelorette trip goes swimming in a lake south of the equator and gets bitten by something, which of course she brings back inside of her upon reentering the country. There goes the wedding. There is no character development, and its not… scary. Just gross. It’s bugs and pus and mucus and such. If that’s your sort of thing, fine, but you can have gross in service of story. This film is pretty awful. What little attempt it makes at story is hampered by poor performances and poorly written dialogue.

Four: COSMODRAMA – it’s a spaceship with a vaguely sixties/seventies feel (think Space Station 76) where the astronauts wake up with no knowledge of who they are or how they got there. So they talk about it. And talk, and test, and talk. Oh my god this film was DULL – setting it in Space served no purpose, they could have been in an underground bunker.  It was just slow and so obsessed with philosophy. Watching it is like talking to that friend of yours that took philosophy in college and thinks he’s an intellectual. And what looked to be a strength at the open, the design, got boring fast. Honestly, I bailed after 40 minutes and no forward progression of plot.

Three: H. – This is one of those films that exists just to irritate audiences. It’s beautifully shot, and there is just enough of a plot that the filmmaker builds up a trust that it is going somewhere. Especially in the case of H., which refers to two women named Helen, in two different storylines. The stories basically never intersect and after going through the whole film at the end you are like ‘what the hell just happened,’ or ‘what was that about?’ The filmmaker pays off nothing that is set up, explains nothing, and reveals nothing. It’s a bit like watching two rain drops slowly make their way down the pane of glass, but you are cutting back and forth between them, so you don’t know where they are in relation to each other or which is winning, and the film ends before seeing which rain drop reaches the bottom first. I hate this film. And I hate the filmmaker for tricking me into watching it by just a hint of story.

Two: THE DARK BELOW – never before has there been such an unnecessary and excessive use of slow motion as exists in this film (actually unnecessary slow motion ran rampant across much of the Fantasia program). The basic premise, a man is torturing a woman by throwing her in a lake with scuba gear and letting it freeze over the top as she slowly runs out of air, is brilliant. And some of the underwater cinematography is quite nice, but there is probably about 8 minutes of story in this film, stretched out to an excruciating seventy-five minutes of running time. I think we have about ten lines of dialogue in the whole film, so none of these characters are very well developed. Plus there is an endless amount of flashback in the film, making what’s happening in the present feel less important in comparison. The flashbacks themselves are not very interesting and are so ham-fisted that its hard to believe our lead woman had ever gotten to this place. Was she not in these flash backs? The only explanation for a movie this poorly conceived and executed is a writer/director/producer who used all their own money for the film, so there is no one to tell them the script is about 15 drafts from being ready.

One: NOWHERE GIRL – this is one of the worst films I’ve EVER seen let alone the worst I saw at Fantasia. First of all the whole film looks like it was shot with gauze over the lens. The lead girl is ‘troubled’ we are told by everyone but we never really see it and she doesn’t seem any different from anyone else. I spent the whole time waiting for SOMETHING, ANYTHING to happen. They kept saying she was on the verge of breaking so I expected her to whip out a gun and kill everyone. Certainly halfway through the movie I wanted to kill myself. Then, and I’m about to ‘ruin’ it for you if you can ruin something so lame, it all turns out she’s in a coma and this is just her dream. But that coma is just a dream from an injury she is recovering from left over from a war they are in the midst of fighting… I think. By then we were like three steps removed from reality making the first 60 minutes of the movie pointless. Not that the whole movie wasn’t also pointless. Ugh.

Dishonorable mentions: Roar (as I have already chronicled), Ojuju (see above), Observance (another great premise no story issue), The Demolisher (boring, didn’t care about any of the characters), On the Horizon (how is this a genre film?), Ludo (flashback hijacks the film for twenty minutes), Hostile (pick a protagonist!)

Even more Dishonorable: She Who Must Burn (one of the least positive reviews I’ve ever written)

FIVE FRUSTRATIONS

Five: CASH ONLY – I’m going to give this one my most mild frustration because the last forty five minutes are near perfect in tension, rage, and release. This film about an Albanian landlord just trying to make ends meet and support his daughter, while hiding a terrible secret in his past, is really well constructed. I really only had two issues with it that kept it from being one of my favorites. Most importantly our hero is actually a pretty awful person at the open. Its okay, because he has room to grow, but he needed more of what we call a ‘save the cat’ moment. He needed to do something so we knew he was good at heart. I think the screenwriter thinks its his relationship with his daughter but he just says he cares about her, and doesn’t really do a whole lot on screen through the first half of the movie to prove it. The second is the glorification of drug use, which always annoys me when it seems unnecessary to the story. His daughter basically gets taken as he is getting high with one of his tenants. And in fact, I probably wouldn’t have even minded this if he had more of a save the cat moment earlier – so this becomes a momentary failing that he has to overcome. As it plays now, it’s just sort of a convenient plot point that again makes him less likable.

Four: BØRNING – Another almost great sort of undercut by a non-likable protagonist. This is essentially a rewrite of “Cannonball Run,” reset in Norway, from one tip of the country to the other. The hero has a daughter who idolizes but can’t be bothered. It takes her almost dying before he actually makes an effort. That’s annoying. It could have been one of the strongest storylines of the film. Another issue is that in general the characters in the other cars are not given much personality. “Cannonball Run” was so awesome because every racer was so distinct and had their own tactics. These just feel like the empty hollow character shells of “Fast and the Furious” reset to a comedy. Seems to me like the best thing to come out of this will be someone in Hollywood has the idea to reboot Cannonball Run.

Three: POSSESSED – So I can’t really talk about this film, a Claymation style macabre fairy tale that looks fantastic, because I didn’t watch more than a minute of it, but I wanted to put it on my list to make a point to distributors. Do not make a ‘screener’ available and then plaster it with a full opacity watermark title that TAKES UP THE ENTIRE FRAME…. FOR THE ENTIRE FILM. Who does that? Do you really want me to watch your film that way? Could I possibly give it a good positive review? That’s more annoying than not making a screener available at all.

Two: STRAYER’S CHRONICLE – I really wanted to love this film which is essentially a rewrite of the X Men but with all the powers due to genetic alteration by scientists and everyone only living to age 20. Unfortunately, that’s the whole movie. None of the character’s powers are explained in any depth, nor do their specific skills play into the end solution. Nobody has much of a character and it’s a film with basically no subplot or b-story. So it’s just sort of there. Feels more like a dull comic book than fully realized film.

One: TAG – there is a special place chamber in my heart for films like TAG, which opened so brilliantly and squandered that good will in scene after scene until by the end of the film I was groaning my displeasure and begging for it to end. This film ‘works’ in the same way ‘it was all just a dream’ does, basically undercutting everything you’ve seen previously, except it does it like three times, and then on top of that, the ending is so convoluted and LAME that I just didn’t care anymore. It was like five unplanted twists too many. In addition, our lead girl does nothing but run around and look worried, which is basically the whole premise of the film, as it is revealed at the end, she was created that way because its some sort of virtual reality live action video game made with clones from DNA or something… I have no idea. And yes, I just ruined the twist, but I am sparing you the pain and disappointment of going through this film. Do yourself a favor, watch the first 30 minutes, then turn it off and never give it a second thought.

Almost as frustrating: “Who Killed Captain Alex?” (unnecessary narrator), “Slumlord” (really? I buy none of this), “The Arti: The Adventure Begins” (convoluted plot issues), (T)error (a doc that doesn’t get the whole story), “Bunny the Killer Thing” (how could it live up to that name?), “Crumbs” (doesn’t pay off the world and set up), “Nina Forever” (pick a tone), “Anima State” (too meta), “Remake, Remix, Rip-off” (extremely poor organized for a doc)

Already written about my frustrations: Bridgend, Orion

Bears Fonte covers indie film for AMFM Magazine and programs and consults for film festivals nationwide.  He is the Founder and Executive Director of Other Worlds Austin SciFi Film Festival as well as the former Director of Programming for Austin Film Festival.  His short The Secret Keeper played at 40 festivals, his feature iCrime was released in 2011 by Vicious Circle.

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