The thing I love most about Fantasia is it is such a mixed bag of genre films. They come from all over the world and from all different perspectives. It is really the most diverse Festival I attend. There always ends up being several films I just don’t get, so I apologize to those filmmakers, but some films just were not for me. There also tends to be films that I absolutely fall in love with that are so out of left field that I never would have expected them. I still remember stumbling upon MEATHEAD GOES HOG WILD, a small Chicago indie film that plays out like a hipster version of FALLING DOWN. Needless to say I’ve watched a lot of films this year, and so far there’s a lot of films that just didn’t work for me. Fantasia has a very distinctive programming team that has been doing this for years so only time will tell if these films catch on at another Festival. I’ve given up predicting what films will play where.
ALIEN CRYSTAL PALACE is promoted with the trigger warning of ‘delightful confusion’ and I have to admit for about 45 minutes I was in agreement. A film about a strange cult leader attempting to bring about apocalypse by bringing together two people who he thinks can be vessels for Egyptian gods, Arielle Dombasle’s debut is not lacking in creativity. There’s some fantastic scenes of excess and costuming genius. There’s some fabulous locations that somebody must have had some pretty good connections to get into. There’s also a fantastic subplot of a movie being made to bring the composer and the director together as vessels. Unfortunately, the film is so ludicrous that it is really difficult to follow what’s going on. Some weird editing choices create a lack of understanding of where the villains are located. The pacing to the film, instead of relying on the energy of the bat-shit set up and the beautiful James Bond-like zip around the world locales lumbers along, belaboring every moment. Then there’s a lot of sex. Not that there’s anything wrong with a lot of sex but it does feel like the director (who has cast herself as the director of the film-within-a-film) just wanted to give herself a bunch of sex scenes with her cast. it only seems fair to point out that I would certainly call out a male director for this behavior, AKA “Joe Swanberg Kissing Disease.” Biggest problem the film has is that none of the characters are likeable so there is no one to cheer for. I felt unconnected to the central storyline. I didn’t necessarily want the apocalypse to be prevented because I wanted the plot to pay off and I didn’t particularly care if the vessels were safe. In the end the film was a fun diversion, but I think suffered from not having any oversight to pull a cohesive story out of the set up.
BLACK MAGIC FOR WHITE BOYS is another film that lost me about halfway through the film. Set in a struggling theatre where the only act seems to be a magic show of the dullest variety, Onur Tukel’s film brings together an interesting ensemble of characters all tied together by the first night that the magician decides to go off-book and instead use his book of black magic. The characters truly shine in the film and they are the source of much humor simply by their outlandishness. For example, there is a small-time millionaire (played by Tukel himself) who made all of his money through inheritance and his entire goal is to never have any responsibilities in life. When he finally has to get a job, he spends his interview saying ‘hire me because I’m white and we white people need to stick together’ – Tukel is not really white. And the character is an awful example of misogyny. In fact most of the men in this film are pretty terrible humans and there’s some laughter that comes from being uncomfortable with just how awful they are being. That being said, the film really delivers the comedy. I don’t think I laughed nearly as much for any other film save LAKE MICHIGAN MONSTER this entire Festival. Where BLACK MAGIC FOR WHITE BOYS goes astray is its length and storytelling. For some reason – actually there’s a very particular reason but I’ll get to that in a second – the film seems to keep ending and then yet continue going. Long after the magician has given up on his black magic for example, we still have scene after scene. Doing some research, it is easy to discover set the film debuted as an episodic series two years ago and has since been recut into a feature film. Because of that, all the peaks and valleys of the individual episodes seem to have made it into the feature as well. Unfortunately for Tukel, this is a case of diminishing returns as the characters and storylines lose their charm without something to hold them together like an overarching goal. Still the film is an amusing time and worth a watch. I am wondering if I might enjoy the series more.
THE DEEPER YOU DIG has a great simplicity in its location and its characters. Set in the Catskill mountains on a road far away from town, the horror film — the brainchild of John Adams, Toby poser and Zelda Adams who serve as writers directors and cast — sets up a great conflict. A child has been hit by a drunk driver, who then then buries the body only to discover that the child is his next door neighbor’s daughter. The mother is also a tarot reader and believes in her power to contact the dead. The setting works great, the murderer is fixing up an old run down house to flip, he’s an outsider here, and the sense of removal from urban society really succeeds in placing us in a conflict that cannot be easily avoided. The performances are fantastic with creepy cinematography and ambient soundscapes to underscore the tension. It feels a bit like a setup from something as elegant as A SIMPLE PLAN. Unfortunately, the film falls apart when the mother calls upon the paranormal powers to bring back the spirit of her daughter. Fine. The problem is the spirit seems to take hold of her killer, except not really. I find films that incorporate the supernatural but don’t do a good job establishing the rules and sticking to them extremely frustrating and this film was all over the place as soon as the ghost element entered. I never knew who was in control of the killer’s body at any one time and why. This also seemed to ruin any tension in the film because the mother knew who the killer was almost immediately. There were no other suspects and there wasn’t a whole lot the killer could do about it. He couldn’t really fight back. I also want to call out the film for a really unnecessary fake-out fight scene. I hate when you show something on screen 70 minutes into the movie and then you’re like ‘oh no that didn’t really happen.’ You can’t start that technique at that point in the film. If you look at something like High Fidelity and his imaginings, they start almost immediately. Anyway, the film is a disappointing entry but also seems like something that could play a whole bunch of genre festivals simply because of its tone and cool location. Maybe having somebody from the outside working with this team could have drawn out the rules of the film and created a more satisfying end.
THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING WKND by Spanish director Jon Mikel Caballero takes the Groundhog Day set up and throws in a new twist. No longer focused on the day repeating in the exact same way, Alba finds her day shrinking by an hour each time it repeats and desperately tries to do something different to resolve it. Although we are never quite sure what will happen when the clock reaches zero and the day is unable to repeat, Alba is convinced that the answer to her escape is in the break-up she and her boyfriend went through. Yes, Alba is fun and beautiful and smart but she’s also a bit selfish and stuck in her 20s. Now on the occasion of her 30th birthday weekend celebration, she finds her friend group falling apart either through one couple moving to Germany or her boyfriend no longer interested in her ‘youthful energy.’ Its actually a bullshit reason to dump someone, and before the Groundhog Day entered I was like, ‘Good, she can do better anyway.’ He wants her to grow up a bit, and for some reason has chosen a weekend away in a cabin with their best friends to do it. Dick move, right? But Alba becomes committed to preventing him from breaking up with her by creating the perfect day for him. Of course, but as the day shrinks it gets more and more difficult and she cannot break the cycle. The Incredible Shrinking Wknd is a fun film that actually doesn’t feel like yet another Groundhog Day clone. The characters are well drawn and well performed and even though this is essentially a “cabin-in-the-woods” film it never feels constrained by its location. I was a little disappointed that the relationship between Alba and one of her female friends (who in one of the repeated days gets a little drunk and kisses her) was never developed. It almost feels a bit like self-censorship, like I’m watching an Indian film where no one can kiss. Anyway, the biggest problem with the film is that it boils down to the thing she has to fix is herself, and the main problem with her is she just has to grow up. It’s not all that interesting, as there’s not really a mystery to solve. She becomes convinced that the thing she must do is win her boyfriend back which is a disgustingly anti-feminist statement, but really the solution of growing up is tied directly to that so it’s a little disappointing. It would actually have been an easy fix where she decides to grow up and because of that, she dumps him. I feel like that’s how the film would have been if directed by a woman. That’s said, the film really works and never drags and hopefully we’ll play a number of genre festivals from here on out.
I’ll be honest, I couldn’t make it past 15 minutes of JESUS SHOWS YOU THE WAY TO THE HIGHWAY. Possibly it was the bad dubbing which just makes a film feel D-rate to me (I’d rather just read subtitles), but I just couldn’t figure out what was going on at all. This is really disappointing for me because I loved director Miguel Llansó’s last film Crumbs which was stylish in its pop-culture loving simplicity. Yes it was wacky combination of Santa Claus, space flight and a post-apocalyptic world but this new film seems to relish it’s pure absurdity in a way that overshadows any plot.
I desperately want the soundtrack for Jennifer Reeders new thriller KNIVES AND SKIN. The acapella takes on pop music create a hunting backdrop for a world that seems to have more to do with a Tim Burton take on life than anything that resembles actual high school. This is a film that I so desperately wanted to love. The characters were bold, and the set-up is simple but full of possibilities. A missing girl who was abandoned by a jerky guy, and the town is left to deal with the fragilty of life.. There are moments of pure brilliance like the mother putting up missing posters covered in glitter paint so they won’t be ignored like missing dog posters – it’s the kind of original thought that really makes me want to see more from this director. However, I never quite understood the world KNIVES AND SKIN is living in. It seemed like it was Halloween everyday with people dressed up in strange costumes for no explainable reason and a lot of the dialogue was so strange and forced that it was almost as if an AI was assigning lines to characters at random. As I watched the film frustrated I was also completely aware that I might be completely wrong about this film. Of course, it played Tribeca and Berlin and Inside Out so maybe I just don’t get it. I wanted to get it, I swear. this director has plenty to say I wish she could just say it in a way that set up its own rules and lives inside them instead of having everything crazy all the time. I need something to hold onto.
The last film I will mention is SATOR a dark one person in the cabin film. By dark I mean the whole film is dark like they shot it without lighting and the cinematographer didn’t know how to open the aperture. I would be hiding the truth if I didn’t admit that I hate one-person-in-a-cabin films, or two-persons-in-a-cabin films. They often just serve as pet projects for filmmakers who maybe should try to raise money and gather a team together rather than go off and do something in which they have to be the writer-director-producer-cinematographer-composer and editor. That’s not necessarily something to be proud about if it means that no one else believes in your vision. Basically, this guy checks deer cameras and listens to tapes of his grandmother who talks about the weird supernatural forces that seem to be speaking to her. It’s a slow simple setup that never gains much traction. An exercise in minimalism for sure but unfortunately an exercise in boredom as well.
Just so that I’m not ending this list of capsule reviews on a negative, I want to give a shout out to LAKE MICHIGAN MONSTER which is some of the most fun I’ve had with a film in a long time. Full review on that one to follow shortly.