As per usual, 2023’s Fantasia International Film Festival brings quirky delights and strange phenomena to center stage. Indies and more mainstream fare alike comingle for one of the most unique festivals of its kind. After the jump, don’t miss our full coverage of this year’s iteration!
Full review at the link.
Full review at the link.
(Written by Intern, Wyatt Frantz) The horror-thriller genre meets medical drama in Birth/Rebirth, where love acts as the engine of a mad science experiment. The story focuses on Celie (Judy Reyes), a full time obstetrician who works tirelessly while taking care of her daughter, Lila (AJ Lister). Lila dies unexpectedly of bacterial meningitis, and Celie requests to take a final look at her daughter… but where did her body go? Celie suspects that Dr. Rose Casper (Marin Ireland), an outcast coroner, might have something to do with it. Celie impatiently barges into Dr. Casper’s apartment, where she is met by a bloodied, undead version of her daughter being kept alive using shoddy medical equipment. Celie realizes she may not have to say goodbye to her daughter after all, and opts to aid the scientific recluse in her attempt to resurrect Lila. As the reborn version of Lila appears less like Celie’s daughter and more like a personal science experiment, the cost of keeping her alive is called into question. Birth/Rebirth takes its audience aback from the very start, using unsettling glimpses of body horror, and some of the most unhinged character building I have ever seen to introduce Dr. Casper. Slow pacing keeps things intriguing, carefully revealing Casper’s twisted world of alternative medicine as the runtime creeps onward. However, once the setting becomes more fleshed out, the film loses the special mystique it worked to establish. A tedious series of medical experiments proceed, leading in a somewhat predictable direction. Celia’s motherly motivation to keep Lila alive manages to add a refreshing spin on modern Frankenstein-inspired stories. Calling issues of attachment and morality into question, deviations from the terrifying to the emotional keep things tonally dynamic. A rudimentary, yet welcome addition to the mix of undead film stories, Birth/Rebirth is bound to speak to mothers with an edge.
My main familiarity with horror maven Larry Fessenden was courtesy of his surprise appearance in Supermassive Games chiller Until Dawn. Going into his new werewolf-drama Blackout, I had no clue what to expect from Fessender as a filmmaker. Alex Hurt (Netflix’s Bonding, She Said) plays Charley, a down-on-his-luck tortured painter who begins to discover he may change into a monster under the light of the full moon. Writer/director Fessenden’s low-key creature feature sinks its teeth into intimate characterization and slow-burn over typical horror bells and whistles. On one hand, the craftsmanship must be admired—Blackout aims for a classic Universal Monsters look to its Wolf Man, and gory kills take full advantage of flashy practical effects. That the film wastes Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, Suitable Flesh) in a single-scene role as Charley’s former lawyer is almost unforgiveable; even as Charley’s ex-girlfriend Sharon, Addison Timlin (2018’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown, That Awkward Moment), too, remains inessential. Scenes go on languishingly long, and side characters are added to pad the runtime. Despite aiming to expand the level of emotionality one expects out of these movies, Blackout falls flat. Though the effects are impressive and Hurt is great as Charley, this Wolf Man story feels limp and neutered.
Inspired by 90s action classic Face/Off, Devils had so much potential to be a modern kick-ass version of a movie I consider to be one of my all-time favorites. Fresh off the murder of his brother-in-law, Detective Jae-hwan (Oh Dae-hwan) will stop at nothing to “catch that bastard no matter what.” Posting footage of their victims online via an untraceable dark web IP address, website SNUFF CINEMA does not just consist of one person. How can Jae-hwan possibly hope to take them down for good? The prime suspect, a maniacal skinny male in his 30s, may be the key after a serial killer tip line alerts the force of his whereabouts. Jae-hwan becomes embroiled in pursuit of the perpetrator: eye-rolling weirdo Jin-hyuk (Jang Dong-yoon). One car chase and on-foot race later, Jae-hwan wakes up in the hospital to discover he is now in the body of Jin-hyuk! Hoping his partner Min-sung (Jang Jae-ho) will be able to help, Jae-hwan tries to convince those around him that he his in a different body before it is too late. While the initial setup is enthralling, Devils soon devolves into preposterousness that doesn’t even try engaging in its kooky premise. Weird editing cuts away in the middle of scenes to other ones like a bad TV-movie. This is nothing compared to a movie-breaking twist that frustrates more than titillates. A Face/Off tribute should be commended, but as they say, the devil is in the details.
(Written by Intern, Wyatt Frantz) Steven Soderbergh’s latest executive production, Divinity, is a boldly artistic work of hypnosis… too bold to the point of appearing confusing and at times purposeless. Starring Bella Thorne (The Duff, The Babysitter), the film features mad scientist Jaxxon (Stephen Dorff) who is on the verge of completing his father’s life’s work: a serum that grants humans impressive strength and immortality. Two humanoid beings spawn into the desolate, dystopian world of our characters, trapping Jaxxon and forcing him to inject abnormal amounts of the serum. While the cinematography showcases an absolutely stunning use of monochromatic film, the plot is not nearly as enticing as the visuals. The minimalist set design and hyper-stylization of the production all around begs the viewer to fall into a trance, but it can only get so far with writing that falls flat, and fails to ground the viewer in its world. The result is something that favors high concepts and overtly artistic presentation over missing story substance that is much needed to craft an interesting film. The final act does leave somewhat of a payoff, thanks to an epic convergence of our characters (whom we only somewhat care about) leading to interesting animated action sequences. While its eye-catching and poetic nature may swindle Divinity into future filmic discussions, I am unconfident in the lack of connection it establishes between the audience and the screen.
THE FIRST SLAM DUNK
Full review at the link.
IT LIVES INSIDE
Full review at the link.
JOURNEY TO THE WEST
(Written by Intern, Wyatt Frantz) The modern mockumentary meets a hopeless Ancient Aliens in Dashan Kong’s impressive feature debut, Journey to the West. Focusing on a extraterrestrial magazine that is far past its prime, we follow the editor in chief, Mr. Tang (Haoyu Yang), who dedicates his entire life to tracking down and proving the existence of alien life. After a series of unexplained and seemingly unrelated events, Mr. Tang drags his tempered coworkers along on a trip to find the source of the anomalies, despite not having a dime to his name. A shoddy search for a story to publish soon turns into a philosophical expedition thanks to oddball villager Sun (Wang Yitong), who seems to operate on a different plane of thought. Using delicate writing and a wise sense of pacing, a deeper sense of meaning begins to seep through the cracks of an otherwise meaningless journey, eventually exploding into a mind boggling conclusion that will lead one to question how small our existence really is. Watching from the outside looking in, one begins to sympathize with Mr. Tang as we watch an experience entirely unique to him unfold to the demise of others. Fighting tooth and nail to find other lifeforms, the film acts as an embodiment of what it means to be truly dedicated to one’s craft, as Mr. Tang marches onwards against all odds in hopes of fulfilling his only sense of purpose. The fine balance between realistic and otherworldly perspectives means nothing is black and white, making the mystery that unfolds just as fascinating to the viewer as they are to the uncompromising Mr. Tang. Larger than life, yet also surprisingly introspective, Journey to the West is a hidden gem that is sure to blow one away.
Full review at the link.
LOVELY, DARK, AND DEEP
An opening sequence with upside down angsty scenery shots is our window into Arvores National Park, the eerie setting of Lovely, Dark, and Deep. As we soon discover, Arvores has the largest number of missing persons cases in the world—being part of the national park system, they often go unreported. Lennon (Georgina Campbell), who has just started as a park ranger, has come here for that very reason. Perhaps she can finally find the answers she has been seeking to unlock her past. I loved Campbell in last year’s unpredictable Barbarian, and she certainly tries her hardest to make Lovely, Dark, and Deep worthy of a watch. Writer/director Teresa Sutherland fills her movie with interesting concepts on paper, but unfortunately visually they amount to stumbling around the forest on an exploration of nothingness. Between the strange voices on the radio and a tangible atmosphere, it is a shame the conclusion results in an underwhelming whimper.
South Korea’s first stop-motion animated movie in 45 years has finally arrived in the form of Park Jae-beom’s lush and emotional debut, Mother Land. The film tells the story of a nomadic tribe, and a tight-knit family within it who are faced with an impossible situation. Little Krisha’s mother falls ill after saving the girl from certain death, in the midst of helping to herd hundreds of reindeer across the land. At the advice of a spiritual Shaman, Krisha sets off deep into the wild, accompanied by her baby brother, Kolya, to track down the legendary Master of the Forest. It is said that only The Master will know the way to stop her mother’s suffering. Running just over an hour in length, Mother Land still manages to be an impressive technical accomplishment in animation—its story of going to any lengths for family will speak to many people, regardless of an obvious foreign language barrier. However, its largest strength is also perhaps its biggest downfall. Despite being so short, the minimal time with the characters ends up somewhat of a detriment to the experience. The only character we can really root for is Krisha herself, and The Master of the Forest ends up being a mysterious, beautiful stand-in for larger messaging that Mother Land only minimally explores. South Korea still proves that in the field of animation, waiting another 45 years to see what other artists have to offer would be a horrible crime.
PEOPLE WHO TALK TO PLUSHIES ARE KIND
As a self-diagnosed obsessive over stuffed animals, the very concept of a movie about people who find therapeutic nirvana through their “plushies” was too tantalizing to ignore. Japanese import People Who Talk to Plushies Are Kind finds two awkward students (Kanata Hosoda, Ren Komai) joining their new college’s “Plushies Club.” What they assume will be a club for crafting these fluffy stuffed things appears to be an actual club for talking to the plushies. They use their plushies as therapy, airing out their concerns and traumas. “Isn’t it nice to talk to them, to have them listen,” one person says. With a concept this adorable, I was hoping for trademark Japanese quirkiness to go along with it; mostly though, it is just a group of damaged folks talking to stuffed animals. The name is not a misnomer: People Who Talk to Plushies Are Kind catalogues a group that speak to plushies, and nothing more.
Full review at the link.
(Written by Allison Brown) Raging Grace won the Narrative Feature Competition at this year’s SXSW, and I can see why; the chilling horror/thriller is exceptional. Director Paris Zarcilla succeeds where other cultural genre titles at recent festivals have had weak points. She provides a more compelling, emotional, and layered Filipino story than both Sundance’s In My Mother’s Skin and last year’s immigrant housekeeper story, Nanny. While the story starts off taking notes from Oscar-winning Parasite, it soon morphs into a Munchausen syndrome by proxy terror, to then so much more. Max Eigenmann as Joy and Jaeden Paige Boadilla as Grace are a believable family unit with great chemistry. David Hayman’s performance playing Mr. Garrett is unnerving in the duality of his personality, and in his display of the white savior complex. The twists and turns are shocking and keep the audience on the edge of their seats. A chilling score keeps one guessing in an endeavor to unwrap the mystery beyond the surface. Virtual coverage for the title out of SXSW was very limited, and I wish it had not been. I fear that Raging Grace has fallen through the cracks of word of mouth and may not get the recognition it deserves as a result. Hopefully its inclusion in the Fantasia lineup will help to reignite the discussion.
Upon first glance at the poster and available stills for festival selection Les Rascals, one assumes the film would present as a sort of West Side Story situation. Featuring rival street gangs and a brief, misguided “love story,” on paper at least, that is exactly what we get. After her brother lays savagely beaten in a coma by local Black Panthers-comparable Rascals, Frederique (Angelina Woreth) falls in with the wrong crowd. Adam (Victor Meutelet) lures her in with his charm and good looks, somehow making a case for being a violent skinhead. Elsewhere, military-bound Rico (Missoun Slimani) and his younger brother, involved in conflict only by way of their involvement in the Rascals, are roped into an eventual tragedy in the third act that comes just as the movie runs out of fuel. Did gangs really behave this way? Nearly everything feels scripted and hollow, save the violence. In that respect, brutality is displayed as concrete and with dire consequences. Les Rascals lacks depth of story, intimate characterization, and visual flair; apart from the period-piece costume design and a core character, the 1980s-set picture has little to recommend. The final act does most of the legwork to hammer home messaging that comes too little too late. When the most interesting part of one’s movie is a title card/afterword, perhaps a restructuring would be highly beneficial.
(Written by Allison Brown) Live streamed murders with anonymous bids from sick clientele for indescribable, revolting mutilation called red rooms are a commonly known dark web urban legend. Director Pascal Plante builds a near future world where this myth has come to fruition as a result of faster Tor streaming rates in captivating thriller Red Rooms. Young women are commonly entranced by true crime, but model and unsavory content enthusiast Kelly-Anne (Juliette Gariépy) takes it one step further. She attends the notorious Demon of Rosemont’s trial and puts herself at the center of the action in court. This criminal, Ludovic Chevalier (Maxwell McCabe-Lokos), is accused of the untimely deaths as well as unspeakable abuse towards three blonde hair and blue-eyed underage girls. From her glamorous apartment to the streets in front of the court, Kelly-Anne falls down a rabbit hole of obsession, leaving viewers on the edge of their seats. For such twisted subject matter, Plante saves the story from ever getting too exploitative and focuses more on character behavior than oversharing offensive content. One scene where a victim’s mother is shown a photo of their child’s decomposing jaw is probably the worst it gets. When depicting characters watching the murder videos, faces glow red and uncomfortable sounds are at the forefront, more than chilling enough without being graphic. The mystery behind what is on the screen and victims’ experiences leave the facts to be envisioned in the minds of the viewer, which is surely more terrifying. Red Rooms is one of the most frighteningly realistic films cataloguing a dark web experience that I have ever seen.
(Written by Allison Brown) In at least the third Frankstein-esque resurrection film to screen at a festival this year, Robert Hloz’s Restore Point makes a formidable entrance, combining Minority Report with a Black Mirror world. Printed portraits move in animated realism a la Harry Potter. The rate of violent crime has skyrocketed, and as a consolation, the government allows its populace to create backups of themselves to restore if killed. However, this can only be successful if restore points are kept up to date within 48 hours. After the head of research at the restoration institute, David (Matej Hádek), and his wife are murdered, Detective Trochinowska (Andrea Mohylová) goes on the hunt to uncover the truth, where a conspiracy deeper than she ever imagined may lie. The resolution feels a bit abrupt after an almost out-of-character false ending, and I was left wondering if I had been resurrected with a memory gap as well. While at times the storyline becomes a bit confusing, long winded, and even silly, Restore Point is still an enjoyable watch worthy of a chance.
(Written by Allison Brown) When a movie opens on a bizarre sign proclaiming, “water is life,” it is clear what one is in for with Junta Yamaguchi’s River. After the success of 2020’s time travel comedy, Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes, I was excited for this director’s follow-up film. Sadly, I was disappointed by the result, despite earnest efforts and creative ideas. 2020’s film was successful in its universal comedic focus, which while present, is not as strong here. Yamaguchi injects more Japanese culture into this one, but it feels as if it takes longer to get to the initial loop due to a potential disconnection for an international audience. The emphasis is instead on personal conflicts, drama, danger, and chaos; this higher stake plotline does not work as well with his very casual directorial style. At times, it feels like the camera following the character could have been a phone. The silly resolution at the end somewhat reduces all the growth that felt built up from the beginning. While River is not a bad film, it had potential to be so much more.
Satan Wants You
(Written by Allison Brown) Satan Wants You, which originally premiered at this year’s SXSW, studies the lengths misinformation can go in affecting culture. The documentary starts especially slow, as it focuses on the origins of the satanic panic in 1980s explicit memoir Michelle Remembers. Psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder and patient Michelle Smith co-write a book, ironically sponsored by the Catholic church, depicting her lurid memories of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her mother and their involvement in a satanic cult. While the excerpts from the book are wild and obscene, it is so farfetched and out of touch with reality that I found it hard to pay attention to a crazy woman spouting bullshit. Somehow the rest of the world did not feel the same at the time; daytime talk show hosts like the queen, Oprah, to cops to people of all levels of education were influenced. Satan Wants You is most successful in showing the spread of the craziness; doctors manipulating patients as a sort of copycat crime is not where I thought this would lead. It seems the current fake news that has supported “Pizzagate” and QAnon originated in all this madness, and I am glad it was touched upon. I am confounded daily by the things that people believe, and an avid devotion to religion for those affected here and in modern day surely does not help. How many people died in the past few years from Covid-19 because they believed one of the wide array of nonsense government conspiracies about vaccination? When will something come along to push people to be more critical and check sources? Widespread delusions like this really put one at a loss of confidence in the future of humanity.
(Written by Allison Brown) While reliably enjoyable and compelling as much as the average Screenlife fodder, Stay Online is an extremely depressing and fictionalized look at civilian life during the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. The body count is high, and the outlook is bleak. Dead bodies are graphically depicted without warning; at times, this comes off as disrespectful for the real victims of the war. On both sides, people talk to the opposition as if they are subhuman; the script could not be more uncomfortable in these moments. One line, where a Russian character tells his innocent mother that all Ukranians “should all be raped to death with a shovel,” is emotionally scarring. Most films of this genre are shallow and fun, but here the real fear for me personally is that this war is going on in real time. Who’s to say that people like the characters depicted do not exist? Ukrainian director Eva Strelnikova turns this factual combat into a gratuitous horror movie; the ethics of this choice are wholly questionable. While hope and heartwarming moments are injected intermittently with lead Kateryna’s (Elizaveta Zaitseva) primary goal to reunite a child with his father (a plotline much like Missing earlier this year), the overall takeaway leans far too pessimistic for my taste. Nevertheless, Stay Online is worth a watch given one can mentally separate the film from current events.
Previously reviewed at 2023’s Tribeca Film Festival.
SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL
Full review at the link.
WE ARE ZOMBIES
We Are Zombies, based on the graphic novel and crafted by the team behind instant-classics Summer of 84 and Turbo Kid, takes the general concept of zombies with a fresh spin. These zombies are actually non-cannibals—referring to them as anything other than the “living impaired” is considered offensive in this world’s modern society. With overpopulation rampant due to the constant rise of the new living undead, job opportunities are also being stolen by these creatures that never need to rest. Three annoying lead characters conduct “extractions” of unwanted zombies, transporting them to make some big cash. The job of a lifetime rolls in, offering $25k to nab the zombie corpse of a once-famous actress. In order to rescue their grandmother from certain death, they must carry off this body-heist without a hitch. Shrill characters spouting off dialogue about masturbating and “shooting retards” will certainly be off-putting to casual viewers and genre vets alike. We Are Zombies does eventually get very bloody, but stays extremely generic. One could go so far as saying it stays as dry as a certain zombie’s remains.
So many great selections, but my personal favorites were definitely Sympathy for the Devil, The Primevals, Killing Romance, The First Slam Dunk, and #Manhole. Until next year, we will continue dreaming about the strange quirkiness that Fantasia Film Festival’s lineup somehow manages to bring us every single time!