[2017 FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL] DISPATCH #1

 

 

This year Fantasia, North America’s biggest and most influential genre film festival, celebrates its 21st birthday as it runs from July 13th to August 2nd. As every year, Fantasia is bringing dozens of high-profile genre films from all over the world to Montreal for the better part of a month of incredible programming. Fantasia is always a great way to learn about films coming out in the near and distant future, and this year the fest is presenting some extra-extra special repertory screenings including the world premiere of Synapse Films’s 4K restoration of Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA, and special tribute screenings of films featuring the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award winners Cüneyt Arkin, Larry Cohen, and Mil Máscaras!

 

July 13:

SUPER DARK TIMES (USA, dir. Kevin Phillips)

In a suburb somewhere in the American Midwest in the 1990s, lifelong best friend Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan) do what bored teenage boys did before the internet. They ride their bikes around town, watch scrambled cable porn, and hang out with people they’ve grown up with whether they like them or not. When Josh kills one of these acquaintances in a tragic accident, Zach tries to cover it up along with the younger kid Charlie (Sawyer Barth) who saw it. The timing couldn’t be worse: both boys have a crush on classmate Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino), and she begins making her move on Zach. But while Zach tries to keep things from falling apart without pushing Allison away, Josh can’t hid his fraying sanity. True to its title, SUPER DARK TIMES is a pitch-black “coming of age” story that perfectly evokes the era in which it takes place. The young cast is great, but Amy Hargreaves is particularly affecting as Zach’s mom Karen. Despite its subject matter, the film manages a few moments of surprising bleak humor and its moody cinematography by Eli Born and excellent score by Ben Frost conjures an almost palpable sense of dread.

 

THE VILLAINESS (South Korea, dir. Byung-gil Jung)

Sook-hee (Ok-bin Kim) goes on a rampage and murders an entire compound of goons to get at their boss before the police show up and take her into custody. In the confusion, sensitive data was stolen from the crime boss, but the shadowy organization to whom said information belongs thinks Sook-hee could be an asset. She is taken on as a reluctant trainee to become a sleeper cell, living a normal life until she is activated to perform difficult assassinations. As Sook-hee tries to adjust to her prosaic new life, her work causes her to cross paths with the crime syndicate run by her deceased husband Hyun-soo (Jun Sung). As she finds herself in the middle of a tightening web of intrigue, will Sook-hee be able to figure out who is really on her side? THE VILLAINESS is a wild hybrid of insanely over-the-top action sequences—including a lengthy opening fight shot mostly in first-person—and soapy melodrama. The overall balance tips a little too much toward the latter, but the action set pieces are so hyperactive viewers will probably want the extra time to breathe before the next one kicks in. The cinematography is also ludicrously flashy: by the time the camera swings under a moving motorcycle, you get the feeling even Ryuhei Kitamura would probably think it’s a little much. Still, for sheer inventive mayhem THE VILLAINESS is in a league of its own.

 

July 14:

TILT (USA, dir. Kasra Farahani)

Joseph Burns (Joseph Cross) and his pregnant girlfriend Joanne (Alexia Rasmussen) return from a trip to Hawaii so he can return to work on his sprawling documentary film project and she can resume studying for her med school finals. But something has happened during the trip, and Joseph finds himself wandering away from his film to walk the city streets at night tempting fate and doing terrible things. As he rails against Donald Trump in the run-up to the recent presidential election and studies the so-called “Golden Age” of post-WWII America, Joseph’s hold on his sanity becomes increasingly tenuous. TILT is a bleak, unsettlingly intimate portrait of a character at the end of his rope, propelled by a strong lead performance by Joseph Cross. It ends with something of a sick punch line, but there’s no doubt that TILT will linger in viewers’ minds long after the credits roll.

 

JAPANESE GIRLS NEVER DIE (Japan, dir. Daigo Matsui)

In the midst of a rash of beatings of men by a group of women in school uniforms, a pair of graffiti artists paint stencils of a “missing” poster of Haruko Azumi (Yû Aoi) all around their city trying to mimic Shepherd Fairy’s “OBEY” street art. In a parallel story, Haruko and another woman a decade older than herself work at a small sales company with two men who do nothing and make nearly ten times their salaries. She falls into a vaguely defined sexual relationship with an old classmate in a desperate attempt to make a human connection and find some respite from the drudgery of her life. Daigo Matsui’s JAPANESE GIRLS NEVER DIE recalls the work of Shunji Iwai, and not just because star Yû Aoi was in Iwai’s ALL ABOUT LILY CHOU-CHOU (2001) and HANA AND ALICE (2004). Matsui presents the doubled stories in jumbled timelines, and he’s interested in small moments and details of his (mostly female) characters’ lives. This including some characters’ preoccupation with technology and social media, a favorite subject of Iwai’s. It’s considerably brighter and funnier than much of Iwai’s work, though, and has humorously absurd bookends in which the girl gang is lured to a movie theater showing an animated film. It may feel like a lot of work to put the pieces together, but in the end JAPANESE GIRLS NEVER DIE is a rewarding and strangely optimistic story.

 

July 15:

GURGAON (India, dir. Shanker Raman)

Young architect Preet (Ragini Khanna) returns home from school to find her father Kehri Singh (Pankaj Tripathy) has become a powerful politician and land developer. Kehri is eager to welcome Preet into the family business and enlists her to design a new city center in Gurgaon, and also wants her to settle into an arranged marriage. Preet’s older brother Nikki (Akshay Oberoi) has become an entitled lout, gambling much more than he can afford and partying all the time. When Nikki makes a huge bet and loses, he finds himself in debt to his ruthless bookie and hastily comes up with a plan to kidnap Preet and get the money he owes from his own father as a ransom. As one might expect, things quickly go south. GURGAON is a solid crime drama/thriller reminiscent of the films of Shanker Raman’s contemporary Anurag Kashyap (GANGS OF WASSEYPUR, PSYCHO RAMAN), and Kashyap has been a champion of the film in their home country. It’s not surprising, as Raman stylishly and methodically puts the pieces of an inevitable tragedy into place and draws tensions to the breaking point. The performances are great, especially Akshay Oberoi as the amoral Nikki. It may not quite reach the heights of Kashyap’s best work, but it gets damned close without feeling like a tribute act.

 

SAVAGE DOG (USA, dir. Jesse V. Johnson)

Narrator Valentine (Keith David) tells viewers the story of Irish exile Martin (Scott Adkins), imprisoned in Indochina in 1959 and forced to fight. When a British special agent gets too interested in what’s going on in the prison run by former Nazi Steiner (Vladimir Kulich), Steiner gives Martin his walking papers. Unable to leave the island where he has landed without a passport, Martin takes a job as a bouncer for Valentine’s bar and falls in love with Steiner’s disowned daughter Isabelle (Juju Chan). Before long, Steiner and his right-hand man Rastignac (Marko Zaror) find Martin and enlist him as a prize fighter. As anyone who has ever seen an action movie will guess, the deal goes sour and Martin undertakes a mission of brutal revenge. SAVAGE DOG is a weirdly slapdash production that feels just barely a step above Steven Seagal’s recent output. This impression is not helped by some astonishingly awful CG effects that would shame Birdemic. Far too much time is spent setting up the inevitable rampage of vengeance that takes up most of the film’s final act, but once it gets up and running SAVAGE DOG manages some impressively gruesome action. As much fun as that is, it’s kind of a slog getting there.

 

THE HONOR FARM (USA, dir. Karen Skloss)

It’s prom night, and Lucy (Olivia Grace Applegate) is set on losing her virginity to her boyfriend to cap off the evening. But her best friend Annie (Katie Folger) just got dumped, and when Lucy’s boyfriend gets too drunk to do anything but puke in their limo, the girls set off on their own and meet Laila (Dora Madison). Laila and her friends are heading to the titular honor farm, an abandoned prison complex where legend has it many men died. Why is Laila so obsessed with the honor farm, and who else might have late-night business there? THE HONOR FARM takes a lot of familiar elements—none-too-bright teenagers, drugs, abandoned buildings—and does very little with them. There’s a lot of talk about what is real and what isn’t, and occasionally the film flirts with a horror-tinged take on A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. But by the end of THE HONOR FARM’s 75 minutes (including credits), it seems like nothing that has come before has had any real impact on any of the characters other than Lucy meeting cute smart guy JD (Louis Hunter). It feels like a huge chunk of the film is missing; whether that’s by design or because of budgetary or other constraints is unclear, but whatever the reason THE HONOR FARM is a slight, unsatisfying exercise in frustration.

 

 

 

 

 

Jason Coffman

Jason Coffman

Unrepentant cinephile. Contributor to Daily Grindhouse and Film Monthly. Member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. Co-director, Chicago Cinema Society. Attempted filmmaker. Proud owner of 35mm prints of Andy Milligan's GURU, THE MAD MONK and Zalman King's TWO MOON JUNCTION.
Jason Coffman

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