Jimmy Henderson’s THE PREY

It’s been a great Fantasia. The films I’ve seen have varied in their flavor from intensely action-packed to slow burn and have highlighted parts of the world with cinematic perspectives I rarely get to check in on. The thing I notice most at Fantasia films is the bold artistic drive of most of the filmmakers. They are not always perfectly structured like a Hollywood script that is been turned over 14 times through several different writers, but they have a uniformity of vision that holds them together uncompromisingly. It’s always an honor to find films that you know someone put their heart into. With that in mind here is the last Fantasia Roundup of the year from AMFM magazine.

There is always tension in the unexplained supernatural power of a singular character, and Brazilian feature THE FATHER’S SHADOW places that power in the most unlikely source. In Gabriela Amaral Almeida’s slow burn voodoo film, 9 year old Dalva discovers the power of sorcery as she attempts to put her family back together after her mother’s death. A film that invokes pet sematary more than once, the dark family drama is surprisingly emotional. Because we’re not ever 100% sure of Dalva’s actual power, much of the film feels like a struggle for her soul. Her aunt believes in the power of incantation while her father, haunted by the very real demons of his wife’s death, begs his child to not experiment with something she cannot control. The Father’s Shadow (or A Sombra Do Pai in the original Portuguese) is full of intentional grit. This is an urban story covered in dirt, much like the doll Dalva buries in the backyard. There is no understanding of the power the young child seems to wield, and there’s no control. It’s one of the most realistic portrayals I’ve seen of tampering with a force you cannot possibly wield with pinpoint accuracy. Also Almeida pulls great performances from everyone in the cast, especially Nina Medeiros who brings a child’s curiosity to a character that in a simpler (and more American?) version of the film might just be some weird goth kid. It’s a subtle film and one that I think might play better a narrative feature competition amongst other dramas rather than at genre festivals, but it’s definitely one that will stick with me.

One of the most disappointing films that I caught at Fantasia was HARDCORE, a comedy about a group of social rejects who discover a trashcan-looking robot that seems to have been left behind by a group of scientist from Princeton. Here in a condemned factory, the robot lies in wait apparently so that two treasure hunters can employ him as the ultimate mining tool. If that sounds far-fetched then you are in the world of Nobuhiro Yamashita who hews together a film that never quite finds its rhythm. Picking up plots like the need to get one of the men laid, and then discarding them completely to move on to some other new idea, Hardcore feels more like a brainstorming session than anything like a cohesive story. I guess there is an audience for these truly batshit bizarre films but they just leave me cold. I never cared about any of the characters or what they wanted nor was there anything original about this robot that seemed to be the center of the plot. There’s a romantic story that seems tacked on, and then all of a sudden we are in a heist film. I guess films like this bother me the most because they just feel lazy and I wonder who’s funding this. Who read the script which felt like the ramblings of a 7th grader and said “yes let’s throw money at this.” Nothing on screen is particularly bad. The performances are fine – given the material. The scenes are adequately filmed and well-lit or functionally shadowy depending on what the scene calls for. But why make this film? What story needs to be told here? What is driving this? There are so many phenomenal artists out there who aren’t getting films made that I wonder when I see something like this. Why? Why this film? Then again, I did watch it all the way through and didn’t feel the need to leave. It just didn’t feel like there was a purpose or that I came out on the other side of 120 minutes with anything at all.

Another film which didn’t really seem to have any drive was STEAMPUNK COLLECTION.  Discussing the film with another person brought up the question ‘is that still a thing?’  I will admit I am the kind of person who loves a film set in a steampunk world but doesn’t at all get people who seem to want to add unnecessary gears to top hats and walk around with stopwatches. In 76 minutes, Québécois director Annie Deniel takes us around the world to look at many facets of steampunk culture. There are artists who make the elaborate toys that can capture the imagination of a lost time that never existed. There are performers who create stories in this world, hoping to transport us. There are the costumers, gun-makers, and even hip-hop artists. And there’s a lot of weird cool shit to look at. Unfortunately, Steampunk Collection never rises above it’s telling title. This is just a collection of stuff that lies under the steampunk umbrella. There’s no attempt to explain what steampunk is, give its history, or explain why people find it so inspiring. The different elements of the film never tie together nor do any of them feel particularly necessary. Most problematically, the film doesn’t actually raise my interest in steampunk by the end of it. Nor do I understand what the goals were for making the film. It’s almost as if somebody got a grant to go to Europe to go to a steampunk Festival and this was the only way they could figure out how to justify the funding. For anyone truly interested in steampunk, let me suggest the far better doc from just a few years ago VINTAGE TOMORROWS which played a number of festivals and is available on most streaming sights…or just go to a Renaissance Festival. Steampunk seems to have invaded it with vampires and faeries.

I ended my Fantasia experience with the Cambodian prison action film THE PREY directed by Jimmy Henderson. Although there is nothing groundbreaking in a film about big game hunters who pay big money for the privilege of shooting at human targets, the film has some truly fantastic hand-to-hand sequences and is a delightful diversion on screen. Our Central character Xin (Gu Shangwei) is an undercover Chinese Interpol detective in the wrong place at the wrong time who ends up under the dictatorial hand of a corrupt prison Warden who sells the right to rid society of criminals to the highest bidder. Having sat through the onslaught of the ad campaign for the latest Blumhouse film THE HUNT which relentlessly played during the Democratic debates, I couldn’t help but notice the similarity between that film and this one in which the prisoners are brought blindfolded into the middle of nowhere and then given in only a few seconds to run into the woods to escape gunfire. Of course our hero is far more prepared for this sort of action than anyone else and quickly turns the tables on his hunters. It’s not a deep film. But it’s fun and well shot. In fact it’s one of the most visually stimulating action films I’ve seen in a long time. The Prey sort of loses its momentum near the end as it’s revealed that one of the hunters is basically suffering from PTSD and shooting at just about anything in front of him, thus robing the film of a final showdown truly worthy of the hero. instead he must go up against the corrupt Warden which is emotionally satisfying but not necessarily as intense as it could be with another combatant. There’s also a criminally undeveloped storyline with the heroes office and the detectives that come looking for him. It’s especially disappointing when you set up a female character in this world dominated by men and she has so little to do.

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