This year, I tried to remotely cover as many of the films screening at Fantasia in chronological order by the days on which they premiered or otherwise played. Naturally, there were some that I was not able to catch up with in time to cover them during the festival, so this final update catches up on some features that I didn’t catch before.
PORK PIE (New Zealand, dir. Matt Murphy)
Luke (James Rolleston) is on the run from some criminals. Jon (Dean O’Gorman) is a writer way behind schedule on his new novel and desperate to get back his fiancée Susie (Antonia Prebble) after doing something he knows is unforgivable. Their paths cross by chance and shortly thereafter they meet Keira (Ashleigh Cummings), who joins their little team for an impromptu road trip all the way across New Zealand that turns into a nationwide manhunt and media frenzy. For his feature film debut, writer/director Matt Murphy has remade his father Geoff Murphy’s famous 1981 action comedy GOODBYE PORK PIE for 2017, keeping the same basic premise and the yellow Mini while updating the cultural specifics. The car chase scenes are a blast, and the three leads have an easy chemistry that helps endear them to the audience even if they’re not entirely fleshed out as individual characters. There’s a lot of beautiful location photography, too, and a fun supporting cast including HOUSEBOUND and HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE’s Rima Te Wiata in a small but important role. It’s pretty lightweight, but if that’s what you’re in the mood for PORK PIE is a charming action/comedy well worth spending time with.
DRIB (Norway, dir. Kristoffer Borgli)
In 2014, comedian/performance artist Amir Asgharnejad made a series of viral videos of himself trying to start fights with random people on the street and getting his ass kicked. The project worked and he got millions of views from all around the world, but he also got something he never would have expected. The marketing company working for a popular brand of energy drink approached him to do a conceptual campaign that would be “canceled” and subsequently leaked to the press to generate controversy and tons of free publicity. But what the head of the campaign didn’t know is that Amir’s videos were fake—he didn’t pick people at random, he had actors play the people he approached. But he decided to take the job to see what happened, leading to one of the weirdest weeks of his life. DRIB is a sort of hybrid documentary and narrative fiction feature in which Asgharnejad tells the story to writer/director Kristoffer Borgli in an interview and plays himself in hilarious and unsettling dramatizations of the events of that week. At one point when Amir refuses to take Borgli’s direction, the director muses that maybe it wasn’t a good idea to let his friend play himself “in a story about how difficult he is to work with.” Brett Gelman gives a spectacularly unhinged performance as Brady Thompson, the fictionalized version of the man who concocted the campaign, and actor Adam Pearson appears playing himself in a parallel experience working on a campaign for Skin Loft and staying in the same hotel. It’s such a bizarre story that Asgharnejad’s reluctance to embellish details for the film is understandable, but the friction between writer/director Borgli’s instincts as a filmmaker and Amir wanting to tell the story as it happened is part of what makes DRIB so funny and thrilling. The film has been picked up for U.S. distribution by Gravitas Ventures, so hopefully it will find the audience it deserves here sooner than later.
EXPO 67 MISSION IMPOSSIBLE (Canada, dir. Michel Barbeau, Guylaine Maroist, & Eric Ruel)
The 1967 World’s Fair was held in Montreal, the first time the event was held outside of Europe. Shockingly, the massive fairgrounds built on three man-made islands was built in less than four years. EXPO 67 uses materials from the massive vault of documentation of the Expo—tens of thousands of documents, newspaper and magazine stories, photos, audio recordings, films, schematics, etc. etc. etc.—and interviews with some of the people who worked on the project to tell the story of how this impossible feat happened. There is a lot of absolutely beautiful film footage shot at the park during the six months of Expo 67, and there’s no denying this is a spectacular story of success against overwhelming odds. If there’s one major complaint to be made about EXPO 67, it’s the rare one that the movie could have easily been much longer. Long stretches of time are completely glossed over, and the footage of the Expo itself is so beautiful and entrancing that it must have been incredibly difficult not to include much more of it. This documentary moves very quickly, propelled by a fantastic soundtrack of swinging ’60s instrumentals and with an undercurrent of tension against the ticking clock to opening day in 1967.
GAME OF DEATH (USA, dir. Sebastien Landry & Laurence Morais-Lagace)
Seven dumb teenagers find a weird old board game while they’re hanging out smoking drugs, drinking, and having sex. They read the rules but don’t realize when it says they will have to kill in order to survive, it’s not just a game. The Game of Death demands 24 victims, and the last player(s?) living when the counter hits 0 wins. Who will it be: Incestuous brother and sister Tom (Sam Earle) and Beth (Victoria Diamond), geeky Kenny (Nick Serino), meek Mary-ann (Catherine Saindon), alpha bro Matthew (Thomas Vallieres), sexually forthright Ashley (Emelia Hellman), or drug dealing pizza delivery guy Tyler (Erniel Baez Duenas)? More importantly, who else outside this group will have to die to ensure these obnoxious kids survive? GAME OF DEATH is outrageously gory, and to its credit most of the blood and makeup effects are practical. This is the kind of movie that has multiple exploding heads, all of which are accompanied by appropriate fountains of gore. The characters, as to be expected, are little more than annoying cardboard cutouts set up for an escalating series of kill gags. The movie actually works best when that’s all they are, as when they open their mouths to reflect on their situation or spell out the subtext of the story they become truly insufferable. Fortunately the action moves at a brisk pace so there’s not much time for philosophizing, and there’s a wide array of image styles and sizes–possibly a result of the film originating as a series of 10-minute episodes produced by La Guerrilla (Montreal), Rockzeline (Paris) and Blackpills (Paris)–so it’s never visually boring. GAME OF DEATH would make for a fun, brainless midnight movie ride with its buckets of blood, retro videogame-inspired score, and brief running time.
COCOLORS (Japan, dir. Toshihisa Yokoshima)
In the future, the planet is blanketed with snow in a seemingly never-ending nuclear winter. What’s left of humanity lives in underground cities, spending their entire lives encased in bulky suits and helmets to keep them from breathing the poison ash that falls from the sky. Teams of scavengers are sent out to the surface to find supplies to keep the underground cities running. Childhood friends Aki and Fuyu dream of what the outside world might be, and Fuyu draws a picture of what he thinks it looks like. When they grow up, Aki becomes a scavenger but sickly Fuyu must stay behind. Aki brings Fuyu colored stones, and Fuyu devises a crude method of screenprinting to add colors to the picture of the world he drew as a child. But the population of their city is dwindling, supplies are becoming ever more scarce, and Fuyu’s health is deteriorating. Will he ever see the sky for himself? COCOLORS is the latest part of a series of works from production company Kamikaze Douga referred to as Gasoline Mask, with roots reaching back to a proof of concept video in 1999 of the same title. The style of animation in this film is somewhat similar to South Korean production company DadaShow (SEOUL STATION, SENIOR CLASS) in that it uses 3D models designed to look similar to hand-drawn animation. But the amount of detail in the character models and especially the backgrounds is exponentially more intricate than those films, recalling the work of comic artist Geoff Darrow. The design of the characters is risky, too, in that they all wear large helmets that make it impossible to see their faces, relying on body language and voice acting to convey their feelings. It works beautifully, and there are some breathtaking moments when all the facets of the production come together for powerful emotional impact. Its world is a little familiar, and it’s maybe a tad too maudlin for its own good, but COCOLORS is another standout animated feature at Fantasia in a year with more than its fair share.
DARKLAND (Denmark, dir. Fenar Ahmad)
Zaid (Dar Salim) is a successful heart surgeon and son of Iraqi immigrants to Denmark. His younger brother Yasin (Anis Alobaidi), though, has become trapped in a world of drugs and violence. He comes to Zaid asking for $100,000 to repay a debt, but Zaid can’t do it. Soon after their meeting, Yasin is hospitalized with severe injuries that lead to his death. The police don’t seem too interested in spending resources to investigate the death of a low-level drug dealer, and in frustration Zaid decides to try to find Yasin’s killers himself. He enlists the help of Yasin’s friend Alex (Dulfi Al-Jabouri), to help him track down kingpin Semion (Ali Sivandi), who ran the trap house Yasin sold out of. But as he spends more time in the underworld, his pregnant wife Stine (Stine Fischer Christensen) feels more and more neglected and worried, and Semion is more powerful and dangerous than Zaid may realize. DARKLAND is a Danish take on DEATH WISH, a slick and well-mounted action/thriller that feels overly familiar. The only thing it really has going for it to separate it from the countless revenge-film knock-offs that followed in the wake of that hugely influential film is the fact that it takes place in the Danish Iraqi community. The cast is great, especially Ali Sivandi as the menacing Semion, and the photography by frequent music video cinematographer Kasper Tuxen is impressive. The action and fight scenes are solidly staged and choreographed, but ultimately DARKLAND feels too familiar to be memorable. Perhaps director/co-writer Fenar Ahmad was concerned that making the characters’ world too specific to their community would risk audience identification at large, but developing that angle would have gone a long way toward making the film really stand out.
MOST BEAUTIFUL ISLAND (USA, dir. Ana Asensio)
Luciana (writer/director Ana Asensio) is an undocumented immigrant living in New York and taking quick gigs for money. She hands out fliers on the street, babysits, whatever she can find to make ends meet on this side of the law. But as hard as she works it’s barely enough, and when she has to visit a doctor the line between the little money she makes and what she needs to survive is thrown into stark relief. Another immigrant Luciana works with frequently, Olga (Natasha Romanova), tells her about a high-paying gig for women like themselves who are hired to attend exclusive parties. It sounds too good to be true, but Luciana takes the information and then spends an exhausting day on a harrowing babysitting job before she can make her way to the party. Once there, she finds it’s not quite what Olga had described. MOST BEAUTIFUL ISLAND is a difficult film to talk about in much detail without spoiling some of its secrets, and this is one of the few recent films in recent memory that is genuinely surprising. Asensio is utterly assured in front of the camera and, in her feature writing and directing debut, behind it as well. The fact that the film was produced by Glass Eye Pix (and the presence of Larry Fessenden in the cast) will tip off savvy viewers to what might be in store, but the focus of the film is squarely on Luciana, her life, how far she’s willing to go to stay in the city, and why. The final section of the film is almost unbearably tense, but that underlying tension is present throughout the entire film in its long tracking shots following Luciana through the streets of the city. This is an amazing debut feature, and one of the best films of the year.
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