Montreal is a tough city to leave. As soon as you think you’re starting to figure out its geography—let alone the dense knot of unspoken rules and centuries-old grudges that shape its dual cultural and linguistic identities—it’s time to turn around and go home. Its charms are so great that it’s even possible to remain optimistic, or at least philosophical, when your outgoing flight is canceled, with no possibility of getting out of Montreal that night. It doesn’t make waiting in line for hours at the airport as the people in front of you argue with ticket agents in English and French any easier, of course. But it does give you a good sense of humor about eventually giving up on finding a hotel room by the airport and taking a taxi back to Fantasia headquarters (or, at least, the pub that serves as its after-hours equivalent) with a sheepish grin and a “long story” to everyone you just gave a maudlin—and, yes, rather drunken—goodbye to the night before.
And, really, it doesn’t take a lot of persuasion to get me to clear my calendar and fill it with movies. So if the weather wants to conspire to ground all flights until further notice, well, who am I to argue? This past weekend marked the second-biggest weekend of the Fantasia Film Festival, the Frontières International Co-Production Market, where aspiring directors and producers pitch projects to rooms full of sales agents and financiers who actually have the power to make their dreams a reality. (Recent films to find funding at the Frontières market include the French arthouse cannibal-horror hit Raw; The Night Eats The World, another French horror film that was reviewed on this site just a few weeks ago; and The Ranger, which was a favorite of The A.V. Club’s Alex McLevy at Chicago’s Cinepocalypse festival.)
Air Canada managed to get me back to Chicago before any of that happened, but not without a few new films to report.
First, making its world premiere at Fantasia this past week was the intriguingly titled The Man Who Killed Hitler And Then The Bigfoot (B), starring Sam Elliott as that very man. The title is no metaphor: As the film opens, Calvin Barr (Elliott), by now a grizzled retiree, is carving a butt groove into a stool at his favorite bar and reflecting on what should be his greatest accomplishment—tracking down and assassinating Adolf Hitler in the midst of WWII. This film isn’t a full-on alternate history, however; in the universe of the film, the assassination failed to stop the war, and the Nazis carried on as if their führer were still alive through the use of body doubles. As a result, Barr’s heroism has been lost to history. He never told anyone, not even his brother or his now-deceased wife, about what happened during the war, and the secret weighs heavier on him with every passing year. Then two government agents show up at Barr’s door asking for his help with another secret mission, this one up north in Canada, that involves tracking and killing another legendary monster.
That should give you an idea of the dual tones juggled by director Robert D. Krzykowski throughout the film, an unusual—and mostly successful—hybrid of a pulpy adventure tale straight out of a midcentury men’s magazine and a meditative reflection on loneliness and aging that’s somewhat akin to a more mainstream version of last year’s Lucky. Paragon of world-weariness Elliott is perfectly cast as the older Barr, giving the character a strong emotional through-line of cynicism and resignation whether he’s eating a frozen dinner alone in front of the TV or stalking Bigfoot through the Canadian wilderness. Aidan Turner, who you may recall from his role as dwarf prince Kíli in the Lord Of The Rings movies, steps in for the extensive flashback scenes of Barr in his Nazi-hunting prime. Turner’s version of the character obviously doesn’t have the gravitas of Elliott’s—all the regrets that weigh on his older self have yet to materialize, after all—but as a macho, square-jawed pulp hero, he’s more than capable. (The casting overall is quite good, with Ron Livingston also turning in a scene-stealing performance as an American secret agent known only as Flag Pin.)
Sometimes, The Man Who Killed Hitler And Then The Bigfoot overplays its themes in its script when it would be better off letting Elliott’s performance do the heavy lifting. But Krzykowski’s blending of the film’s wildly divergent tones is admirable for a debut feature, and given its great cast and slick, multiplex-friendly filmmaking style, the film could end up being a modest indie hit if given a proper theatrical release by an as-yet-hypothetical distributor.
Another film that had its world premiere at Fantasia this past week was Cam (B), a techno-supernatural thriller set in the world of professional webcam modeling. Pre-screening hype surrounding the film at Fantasia mostly revolved around its realistic depiction of sex work, which as this film makes clear, is a job like any other, with its own fringe benefits, occupational hazards, and daily routines. Screenwriter Isa Mazzei drew on her own experiences as a former camgirl for the script, which juxtaposes the accelerating surrealism with details of the protagonist’s offscreen life; Mazzei’s personal touch is most evident in the fully realized complexity of the main character, Alice (Madeline Brewer), a.k.a. Lola_Lola, an ambitious young woman who genuinely seems to enjoy her job and approaches it with a dark sense of humor.
The nightmare that unfolds when Alice wakes up one morning to find that her mysterious digital double is already online and has locked her out of her account is both extremely specific to camming and universal to the 21st-century condition. Alice’s livelihood depends on being able to log on, and her double imperils her offline existence by crossing boundaries that the real Alice never would, sending stalkers to her door and humiliating her by exposing her line of work to her entire extended family. But who among us doesn’t currently project a significant portion of their identity online? Not only that, but the idea of competing with an inhuman entity who never logs off and never needs rest is a nightmare that should resonate with anyone involved in the gig economy.
In this sense, Cam is a rather brilliant contemporary take on the Hitchcockian identity thriller, a feminist update on David Lynch and Brian De Palma by way of Unfriended. (Director Daniel Goldhaber’s nigh-fetishistic use of neon lighting and heavy curtains enhances the De Palma vibe.) Alice’s materialism and ambition initially give it shades of a morality tale, but Brewer’s intensely vulnerable performance, particularly in a harrowing scene where she watches her double stage a fake suicide on camera, puts the audience’s sympathy squarely with her.
Picking up and discarding plot threads at will, the script doesn’t always live up to the promise of its concept. But Cam is another slick indie film that could have mainstream potential—Blumhouse, which co-presents the film, doesn’t put its name on things that don’t—if wider audiences are willing to look past cultural stigmas against sex work. They’ll be missing out if they aren’t.
Commercial prospects are not so bright for the German experimental horror film Luz (B), which made its North American premiere in the second week of the Fantasia Film Festival. But let me be the first to say: Who gives a shit? In a cinematic landscape where retro throwbacks are predictably bundled around the same small set of nostalgia-friendly filmmakers (we all love Carpenter, but come on), it’s positively invigorating to see a loving tribute to a director’s influences that’s also aggressively avant-garde. Specifically, Luz is a pioneer in a new subgenre hereby dubbed Żuławski-core, a deconstruction of the demonic possession film that’s more concerned with discordant aesthetics and worshipping the savage feminine than conventional narrative structure.
The first third of the film, which unfolds in a series of long, unbroken wide-angle tracking shots, is by far the best part of the movie, cutting back and forth between Luz (Luana Velis), a cab driver with a backwards baseball cap and a busted lip muttering a blasphemous prayer in Spanish while sitting in a drab, wood-paneled police station, and Nora (Julia Riedler), another young woman sporting a white leather jacket and deep cleavage whose flirtatious barroom conversation with miserable, sodden psychiatrist Dr. Rossini (Jan Bluthardt) reveals itself to have a diabolical ulterior motive. Luz and Nora are connected by an occult ritual they performed together back in boarding school, and the demon they conjured that day is trying to find its way back to its true love.
Eventually Luz and Dr. Rossini meet up in a police interrogation room, where he puts her under hypnosis and asks her to remember the events of the night before, when something criminal—it’s never exactly clear what—occurred in the back seat of Luz’s cab. This is where the film begins to morph into an experimental theater piece with cinematic flourishes. Director Tilman Singer uses creatively applied sound effects, surrealistic cutting, and plenty of blood to give the chamber drama a supernatural edge, but the middle section of the film, which was also its most divisive at the Fantasia screening I attended, is both unsettling and a bit unfocused. A killer denouement brought me back on board, though, and overall Luz is exactly the sort of film these festivals are made for: unapologetically strange and utterly fearless. It also doesn’t overstay its welcome at 70 minutes, which helps.
Finally there’s Chained For Life (B-), another alum of the Frontières market that screened at Fantasia following its world premiere at the BAMcinemaFest 2018 in Brooklyn. A meta-commentary on filmmaking in general and cinematic conceptions of beauty in specific, the film is clearly enamored with its own cleverness—which isn’t to say that it’s not clever, just that a more clear-headed film could have distilled its ideas better, and been more satisfying as a result. Set behind the scenes of the first American film from a German art-film director clearly based on Werner Herzog—who did make a movie with an all-little person cast back in the ’70s—Chained For Life stars Teeth’s Jess Weixler as a movie star who becomes aware of the privilege her beauty brings her through her friendship with an actor with a severe facial disfigurement, played by Under The Skin’s Adam Pearson.
Writer-director Aaron Schimberg dances right up to the edge of exploitation by casting actors with congenital disabilities—including Pearson, who has a condition called neurofibromatosis—to play the actors in the film-within-a-film, a move that’s condemned as exploitative within the film. (Confused yet?) Things get further muddled by the film’s fluid shifting between the boundaries of “real life,” the film-within-a-film, and a third film that Rosenthal and the rest of the disabled cast are making on set after the rest of the cast and crew go back to their hotel, with the filmmaking style shifting from naturalistic to stiffly composed along with it. Wrapped up in this construct, the film noticeably drags in its second half, but the script’s showbiz satire shows occasional flashes of savage brilliance, and the meta aspects are thoughtfully composed, if occasionally self-indulgent.
Our Fantasia coverage will continue next Monday with a quartet of action movies from around the world: Five Fingers For Marseilles (South Africa) and Buffalo Boys (Indonesia), two different takes on the post-colonialist Western; Champion, a South Korean remake of Over The Top; then back to the U.S. for Bodied, which isn’t an action movie per se, but it does have rap battles in it.