Here’s Jason Coffman’s fourth dispatch from the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal. Catch up on the first one by clicking on this sentence. And here’s the second! And the third! And the fourth! And the fifth! And with all that out of the way, let’s get down to the sixth and final epic installment…
ANOTHER EVIL (USA, dir. Carson D. Mell)
Dan (Steve Zissis) is a successful artist who has unfortunately seen a terrifying ghost in his vacation home. His wife Mary (Jennifer Irwin) brings in a specialist in such things who informs them they are in no danger from the entities who share their living space. Dan isn’t so sure, and a friend refers him to Os (Mark Proksch), a “ghost assassin.” Dan stays at the vacation house while Mary and their son Jazz (Dax Flame) are back at home and hires Os in hopes they can rid the house of ghosts before Mary returns, but it turns out Os is as profoundly lonely and weird as he is effective at ghost trapping. Debut feature writer/director Carson D. Mell previously worked as a producer and writer for the HBO series SILICON VALLEY and wrote episodes of EASTBOUND & DOWN, a track record which gives a pretty good idea of the approach taken to exorcism tropes in ANOTHER EVIL. Instead of focusing on the supernatural, the film’s center is the uneasy relationship between Dan and Os, two very different guys who find themselves unexpectedly having to share close quarters. Steve Zissis and Mark Proksch are excellent in the lead roles, wringing a lot of deeply uncomfortable laughs out of their predicament. It becomes a bit less interesting as it moves into the third act and the situation spirals out of control, but overall ANOTHER EVIL is a very funny film that takes a fresh approach to some familiar material.
AMERICANA (USA, dir. Zachary Shedd)
Severely depressed alcoholic Avery (David Call) finds himself in a strange situation after he is removed from the isolated cabin where he’s been drinking himself to death and forced sober in a well-appointed home. Calib (Jack Davenport), a film producer, has enlisted Avery to edit a shelved feature starring Avery’s sister Kate (Kelli Garner) into a releasable film to recoup its investors’ money. Kate’s star is on the rise despite being in the car during the tragic accident that sent Avery spiraling into depression and left a little boy dead. When the boy’s cousin guns down Kate and commits suicide, Avery suspects there’s more than simple revenge at work and decides to investigate when he’s not too drunk to get out of the house. Expanded from a 2008 short of the same name by writer/director Zachary Shedd, AMERICANA is a bleak mystery/drama that recalls film noir both in its focus on a lost man trapped by circumstances and conspiracy and in its flat-out gorgeous cinematography by Justin Charles Foster. It feels freezing cold in its technical precision, suggesting these guys would absolutely nail a Bret Easton Ellis adaptation, but that coldness may also ward off viewers looking for a point of entry into the beautiful but distant world of these largely unlikeable characters. This may be a film easier to admire than really enjoy, but its museum piece feel sets it well apart from the typical “rough around the edges” technical quality of many independent films at its level.
A BRIDE FOR RIP VAN WINKLE (Japan, dir. Shunji Iwai)
Nanami (Haru Kuroki) has spent her entire life floating directionless, drifting into a part-time teaching job that she doesn’t really care about and a relationship that seems headed for marriage more out of mutual obligation than any real emotion. Her only connection to anything outside of herself seems to be her anonymous blog where she posts her most intimate secrets and feelings. When her fiancée balks at the small number of guests Nanami will be inviting to their wedding, she panics and decides to hire a service that provides fake family members for just such occasions. This decision leads to a number of situations that lead Nanami down unforeseen paths in her life and toward a relationship she could never have imagined. Writer/director Shunji Iwai’s career has followed a strange and unpredictable trajectory, including directing his first English-language film (VAMPIRE) in 2011 only to see it shelved for years before returning to Japan to direct a documentary about the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima earthquake (FRIENDS AFTER 3.11), an animated prequel to one of his earlier films (THE MURDER CASE OF HANA & ALICE), and now this sprawling 3-hour drama that touches on some major themes of his previous work. Like ALL ABOUT LILY CHOU-CHOU’s characters, Nanami is almost cripplingly dependent on her online interactions, and at the center of this film is a strong bond between a pair of female friends (like in Iwai’s HANA & ALICE films). Iwai is a fascinating artist whose films are unmistakable for anyone else’s, and A BRIDE FOR RIP VAN WINKLE is no exception.
TOWER (USA, dir. Keith Maitland)
On August 1st, 1966, Charles Whitman killed his wife and mother and then took an arsenal to the observation deck of the clock tower at the University of Texas at Austin, where he began to shoot people on the ground seemingly at random. Approximately an hour and a half later, police inside the tower gunned down Whitman, who had in the meantime shot nearly fifty people. TOWER takes interviews with people who were there on the day and translates them into animated dramatizations of their experiences in one of the deadliest mass shootings in history. It’s a harrowing, powerful examination of what at the time was an isolated incident but now 50 years later has become depressingly commonplace in the United States. Director Keith Maitland brings together some of the victims of the massacre for the first time since that Summer day, some of them talking about their experiences for the first time. TOWER is frequently difficult and overwhelming to watch, but as such it should also be required viewing. Too often after mass shootings, we learn a lot about the perpetrators but little about their victims; this film takes completely the opposite approach—Whitman is never even seen on screen–and the result is deeply affecting.
THE DEVIL’S CANDY (USA, dir. Sean Byrne)
Jesse, his wife Astrid, and their young daughter Zooey are excited to move out of their cramped house in the city and onto a large, suspiciously cheap parcel of land in a more rural area. Their enthusiasm is tempered when their real estate agent explains that an old woman and her husband died in the house, but not enough to deter them from putting an offer on it. It turns out the agent was not entirely honest: the old couple were murdered by their troubled son Ray, who hears demonic voices commanding him to do terrible things. As Jesse finds himself troubled by some disturbing new artistic inspiration, Ray is out of the hospital and on his way home. Sean Byrne’s follow-up to THE LOVED ONES is a solid, tense horror thriller with a great cast who really make the viewer care about their characters. Ethan Embry is great as Jesse, and Kiara Glasco turns in a fantastic performance as Zooey. Along with Shiri Appleby as Astrid, the actors have a natural chemistry that makes them convincing as a happy family who happens to love metal. And Pruitt Taylor Vince is awesome, as always, as the tragic but dangerous Ray. There’s an out-of-place subplot about a sinister art gallery, but it never takes up too much time to be much of a distraction. For the most part, THE DEVIL’S CANDY is a big improvement on THE LOVED ONES, and an interesting and entertaining take on the traditional haunted house horror story.
JUDGE ARCHER (China, dir. Haofeng Xu)
Following a brutal attack on his sister by powerful men in their village, a young man (Yang Song) is sent nameless over the wall of the monastery where they took refuge. He is commanded to take the first words he hears as his new name and start a new life, but somewhat unfortunately, those words are “Judge Archer.” This is the title of a man who acts as arbiter between martial arts schools settling their disputes, and who is frequently a target of revenge and potential assassination for his dispensation of justice. The current Judge Archer takes the young man under his wing and trains him as a replacement. Years later this new Judge Archer finds himself embroiled in a complicated web of political and personal conflicts between a number of dangerous parties. Haofeng Xu’s debut feature THE SWORD IDENTITY is one of the best and most unusual martial arts films in recent memory, something like what one might imagine the Coen Brothers might do with this type of film. JUDGE ARCHER, originally produced in 2012 and not seen since a handful of festival screenings in 2012-2013, received its North American premiere at Fantasia after Xu’s third film THE FINAL MASTER had already received a limited theatrical release in the States. It’s disappointing but not surprising that the film’s Chinese studio wasn’t sure what to do with it: like THE SWORD IDENTITY, JUDGE ARCHER is a film that gleefully confounds expectations of what constitutes a “martial arts” movie. It’s masterfully directed, acted, choreographed, and edited, with its placid surface and energetic bursts of action seemingly prefiguring Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s approach to the form in THE ASSASSIN. Unlike that film, though, JUDGE ARCHER is shot through with Xu’s odd sense of humor, giving it a much less self-serious tone than many films in this genre. Here’s hoping its warm reception at Fantasia coupled with the release of THE FINAL MASTER will help gain Xu the reputation he deserves as one of the most intriguing artists working in international cinema.
DON’T BREATHE (USA, dir. Fede Alvarez)
Rocky (Jane Levy) has virtually made a career out of theft with her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) and their friend Alex (Dylan Minnette). Money gets a line on a potential big score that Rocky could use to get her and her little sister out of Detroit and their strung-out mother’s home: a blind man (Stephen Lang) who may have hundreds of thousands of dollars squirreled away somewhere inside his isolated home. It seems like an easy job, but what they don’t know is that the Blind Man is former military, highly trained and extremely dangerous with or without his eyesight. Their plan rapidly goes sideways, the thieves are trapped inside the house, and the hunt is on. DON’T BREATHE is a solid thriller that has one absolutely jaw-dropping sequence — a basement chase shot completely in the dark with super low-light cameras—that very nearly makes the whole movie worth watching on its own. Levy is a compelling lead, once again teaming up with EVIL DEAD director Fede Alvarez, and she and Lang give their characters more weight than they probably even need. What starts off as a straightforward thrill ride moves into some jarringly disturbing territory, though, and when the Blind Man’s motives are unveiled, the movie trades in a lot of its unpretentious exploitation charm for something much sleazier. Until that point, DON’T BREATHE is a solidly-built, stylish thriller that more than anything makes me look forward to whatever Alvarez does next.
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Tags: Canada, China, comedy, Crime, documentary, Dylan Minnette, Ethan Embry, Fede Alvarez, Horror, Jane Levy, japan, Montreal, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Rob Tapert, Sam Raimi, Screenings, Sean Byrne, Shiri Appleby, Stephen Lang, Thriller