In a year without much to look forward to, watching movies is about the only way to escape your day-to-day existence and see something new—from the confines of your living room, of course. And that promise can come with caveats: In the case of the Fantasia Film Festival, one of the handful of virtual film festivals that have launched since March, the majority of the program is geo-locked so only Canadians can watch the selections. That’s excluding the festival’s special events, which include tributes to John Carpenter (that one takes place today, at 4 p.m. Eastern) and the late Stuart Gordon, as well as workshops hosted by Doctor Sleep’s Mike Flanagan and You’re Next’s Simon Barrett. Those are all free worldwide on Zoom.
The reasons behind this geographical exclusion are complex, and involve the kind of labyrinthine agreements of territory rights and exclusions that even critics tend not to understand very well. As best as we can figure it, if a film screens online for the entire world to see, that basically torpedoes its chances of getting a distribution deal in the future. (Remember the future?) Viewers, the logic goes, won’t come out to the theater to see a movie, or even rent it on VOD, if they’ve already seen it at home. And independently funded features—the lifeblood of any film festival—depend on distribution deals to make their budgets back.
For a one-time-only rollout to be worth it, a film festival would have to pay the filmmakers a screening fee equal to that of what they’d get from a distributor for a national or international release. And even Amazon doesn’t have that kind of money, as demonstrated by the tepid response to the company’s SXSW initiative (which did stream participating films worldwide on Prime). And so The A.V. Club’s Fantasia coverage this year isn’t all that different in terms of its function: to put films on readers’ radar for them to check out later. That is, except for Canadians, who can buy tickets for on-demand titles and scheduled livestream screenings here. This time around, the nice guys of North America are finishing first.
To be honest, covering Fantasia virtually isn’t all that different for us, either; typically, we spend a weekend in Montréal, then accomplish the remainder of our reviews with the help of online screeners. That’s because Fantasia is normally a monthlong affair, and as much as we’d love to spend 30 days eating amazing bagels and taking a survey of the state of genre filmmaking around the world, our bosses aren’t as open to the idea. (We can’t imagine why.) And so it is with whatever sad bagels we can scrounge up in the Midwest that we bring you a selection of films from this year’s Fantasia Film Festival, with two more dispatches coming up on Saturday, August 29, and Wednesday, September 2. Bon cinema—à la maison!
The buzzy Sundance title Promising Young Woman is now floating in indefinite release limbo thanks to COVID-19, but Fantasia and the Netherlands have come through with a satirical buffet of homicidal femininity to tide viewers over in the form of The Columnist (Grade: B). Westworld’s Katja Herbers stars as Femke Boot, a newspaper columnist whose success hasn’t cured her of the impulse to obsessively check social media and see what the trolls are saying about her. Given that she’s a woman who dares to have an opinion on the internet, much of what they say about Femke is hurtful—and sometimes even scary, as when an anonymous poster tweets at her, “I know where you live.” An appearance on a TV talk show where Femke asks, “Why can’t we just have different opinions and be nice about it?” just makes things worse, until she’s driven to the edge of sanity by a Qanon-esque online campaign smearing her with unfounded accusations of pedophilia.
That’s all (ahem) relatable enough, but what Femke does next, best described as the closing scene of Shrill season one by way of American Psycho, complicates the situation in violent, darkly funny ways. Director Ivo van Aart plays up the outsized reactions to Femke’s work (one column, “I Don’t Like Soup,” prompts death threats), placing it parallel to the hypocrisy of her moralistic chiding for others to “be nice” while she has a box of human fingers in her freezer. The addition of Femke’s new boyfriend Steven Dood (Bram van der Kelen), a horror writer whose gruesome stories facilitate thematic exposition in the dialogue scenes, threatens to take that commentary into overly heavy-handed territory. But overall, this is a sophisticated take on over-the-top material, arch but not quite Serial Mom-style campy.
Buy tickets to watch The Columnist on demand in Canada here.
Just as satirical, but a lot less bloody, is Special Actors (Grade: C+), the latest from Japanese director Shinichiro Ueda. Ueda’s last film, One Cut Of The Dead, caused a sensation in Japan and at festivals around the world by upending audience expectations of both zombie movies and storytelling in general. And Special Actors takes a similar, impish joy in celebrating the sleight-of-hand underlying all art, here concentrated specifically on acting. The first half of the film recalls the late ’90s and early ’00s output of Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry in the best way possible, setting up a surreal premise—an agency of “Special Actors” who specialize in inserting themselves in real-world situations, from laughing at terrible movies to fake crying at funerals—before handing out a (literal) script for convoluting that idea past the point of absurdity.
The complicating factor here is a client who asks the Special Actors to infiltrate the cult that’s brainwashed her sister, adding another layer of satire as Ueda works in tongue-in-cheek New Age-isms alongside the meta humor. Unfortunately, however, Special Actors gets caught in its own web as the story continues to weave threads and then unravel them, losing major momentum in its second half. At 110 minutes, it’s too long to be truly madcap, and the flat visual style doesn’t help in terms of keeping viewers engrossed in the story. The first 45 minutes or so are brilliant, though.
Special Actors screened on Thursday, August 20 as part of the Fantasia Film Festival.
Meanwhile, there’s nothing tongue-in-cheek about Chasing Dream (Grade: C), an odd footnote in the directing career of Hong Kong filmmaking legend Johnnie To. To by no means only directs gangster epics—recent credits include the rom-com sequel Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2 (2014) and the musical comedy Office (2015)—but his tough-guy films are the ones that tend to get distribution in North America. So foreign fans may find Chasing Dream a bit puzzling, as it combines romance, comedy, melodrama, and MMA beatdowns in an A Star Is Born/Rocky hybrid about an MMA fighter (Jacky Heung) and an aspiring songwriter (Keru Wang) who bond over their shared commitment to achieving their dreams.
The comedy is broad and the romance unconvincing, and the overstuffed, uninspired storyline makes it pretty obvious that this is a work-for-hire job for To (who, rumor has it, owed the lead actor’s father, producer Charles Heung, a favor). But even when he’s simply collecting a check, To can direct the hell out of action, and the MMA scenes are visceral and kinetic, with a through line that translates the choreography clearly on screen. He can also direct the hell out of a musical number, and this film has many, thanks to a plot line involving an American Idol-style TV singing competition called Perfect Diva. This is a more colorful film than To’s iconic triad movies, more La La Land than Election. It’s for completists only, though those who’ve solely dabbled in To’s crime movies may want to see what he does with the musical.
Buy tickets to watch Chasing Dream on demand in Canada here.
For colorful production values without the musical numbers, turn to the beautifully photographed, appealingly morbid The Mortuary Collection (Grade: B-), a horror anthology that re-creates its influences with an impressively lush visual sensibility, considering its modest beginnings as a short film. The wraparound story blends old-fashioned Gothic horror with contemporary meta snark, as decrepit mortician Montgomery Dark (Clancy Brown, buried under layers of creepy prosthetics) tells macabre tales to sarcastic teenager Sam (Caitlin Custer), who applies for a job at his funeral home.
Each story is tied to a body in Dark’s morgue, and each of them carries a moral lesson in the tradition of EC Comics and its offspring, the Tales From The Crypt series and Creepshow. Director Ryan Spindell wears his love for the genre on his sleeve, and The Mortuary Collection recalls everything from Hammer Horror to Sam Raimi at various points throughout the film. It’s less successful at actually transcending those influences, although Spindell’s devotion is endearing.
Buy tickets to watch The Mortuary Collection on demand in Canada here.
On the other hand, saying Climate Of The Hunter (Grade: B) is a play on European vampire movies of the ’70s is like saying that a pineapple pizza is a play on pepperoni pizza—they’re technically building on the same basic ingredients, but the flavor is completely different. That’s thanks in large part to the singular vision of the film’s director, Mickey Reece, a DIY auteur based in Oklahoma City who’s completed dozens of homemade feature films over the past 12 years.
The film is a three-hander, revolving around two sisters (Mary Buss and Ginger Gilmartin) holed up in a remote cottage who fall under the spell of a gentleman vampire (Ben Hall). But the plot is secondary: Everything from the casting to the pacing to the dialogue and cinematography contributes to the film’s strange, somnambulant tone, which manages to re-create the knife’s-edge sexiness of a good giallo while still obviously being shot at someone’s lake house. The atmosphere is so dense and hypnotic, you just want to take a big whiff and get high on the psychosexual fumes.
Buy tickets to watch Climate Of The Hunter on demand in Canada here.
The 2020 edition of the Fantasia Film Festival is taking place online from August 20-September 2, 2020.