Fantasia 2010: Still Subversive Sell-Outs

Upon seeing this year’s Fantasia program, my immediate thought was: “Are they selling-out?” After all, the fest once known for weird and eccentric films from around the world was opened by THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE, a Jerry Bruckheimer’s Disney production! That sounded like announcing Frank Henenlotter opening the Venice film festival (not happened – yet)! But, fear not: it just meant the organizers were trying to cover as many bases as possible. After all, in spite of the apparently lesser number of, say, horror films, this year’s Fantasia had more than its usual share of transgressive shocking craziness: dicks were chopped off, eyes picked out and eaten, horses’ dicks sucked, people exploded, mutant girls cut men in half, reanimated revenants roamed the streets, cannibal families and ghouls fed on the unsuspecting victims… and more!

The alibi for the Disney opening was, actually, quite good: after all, THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE is based on a sequence from the animated film which gave Fantasia its name, and the young star Jay Baruchel is a local boy from Montreal who also happens to be an old Fantasia-regular. So, this particular opening was not a sell-out sign but just a proof that Fantasia’s ambitions are rising higher – with a program (and, hopefully, budget) to support those. Whatever the case, it was particularly pleasing to see sold-out and mostly sold-out screenings, not only of the highly anticipated genre premieres (like, say, the new I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE) but also of relatively lesser known titles (like the Serbian TEARS FOR SALE or Hungarian artsy flick called “1″). Fantasia has always been about discoveries, explorations into the far out, unusual and exotic, and this year’s 14th edition was no different.

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Here’s my brief overview of what I managed to see at Fantasia 2010 (in order of excellence):

FISH STORY – 9/10
A gloriously feel-good Japanese film about the end of the world and the power of attitude and self-confidence in the face of calamity. Too complex to be briefly retold, the plot concerns several characters in three time periods (late 1970s, late 1990s and 2012) and has too many applause-inducing moments to be counted. Clever script, confident direction and excellent performances. A sheer joy from beginning to the end.

SYMBOL – 9/10
Monty Python meets Stanley Kubrick in this crazy existential fantasy-comedy about a man who wakes up in a white room whose walls are covered by tiny angelic penises (!). Pressing those is the only way of getting means to leave the room, but the question remains: even if he gets out, what exactly IS out there, and how many more penises are there to touch before the ultimate salvation? The description may sound dirty and perverted, but the film is actually very good-humored, inoffensive and entertaining. Its unpredictable absurdities seem to suggest that human life is governed by the mixture of highly limited “free will” and the sick jokes from the unseen forces above.

AT WORLD’S END – 8/10
You might not expect Denmark to produce a witty homage and accurately modernized reinvention of the American action-adventure comedies from the 1980s, but here it is nonetheless! A socially awkward lawyer becomes an unlikely hero in the jungles of Sumatra where various groups attempt to find the flower which allegedly provides eternal youth. Written by Anders Thomas Jensen (ADAM’S APPLES, THE GREEN BUTCHERS…) with his trade-mark mixture of black comedy, absurd and tragi-comedy, but augmented by some action set-pieces and stunning location photography! Hollywood has long since stopped making spirited and quirky movies like this: thank Azathoth for the Danes!

THE REVENANT – 8/10
A crowd-pleaser if there ever was one! A theatre full of Fantasians cheered and applauded throughout the full two hours of this horror-comedy about a recently reanimated guy, his buddy and his ex. They have to cope with his new thirst for blood, with the rising crime in the streets of LA, with his girlfriend – and, in the end, even with the American military-industrial complex and their questionable foreign policy! It covers all the bases, from fart-jokes to social-satire, from touching human drama to first rate splatter effects. Few films after AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON have managed to pull off the difficult balance between horror, humor and drama, but THE REVENANT is certainly one of the more successful attempts to grasp that magic.

POSSESSED – 7/10
A slow-moving South Korean horror-drama about a girl’s search for her missing sister and her efforts to connect it to a series of gruesome demises in the neighborhood which seem to be linked to a peculiar exorcism of the Eastern kind. This is one the very few recent horrors coming from Asia which actually seem to have something on their minds. It possesses the competence to scare you and make you think at the same time.

HIGANJIMA – 7/10
Based on a manga, this dynamic action drama takes place on the vampire-infested Japanese island where a teen boy and his friends try to find his brother. Characters are better rounded than you might expect and one actually cares for them in the midst of all the fights, escapes, bloodletting and monster-fighting. High production values and solid effects make this an enjoyable visual feast, even if over-the-top ending and the final twist feel forced.

HEARTLESS – 7/10
The first film by Philip Ridley (THE REFLECTING SKIN, PASSION OF THE DARKLY NOON) in 14 years certainly deserves attention: visually stunning, with some indelible images of horror (but also of beauty), it proves that Ridley is still in top form as a visual artist, though not as successful as a storyteller. His Faustian drama of a boy with a mark on his face who enters an otherworldly bargain to have it removed could use a little more coherence and a little less predictability. Jim Sturgess carries the film admirably on his back.

BLADES OF BLOOD – 7/10
A costume drama cum action film uses the period setting for a story of complicated political divisions in medieval Korea, but wisely puts a boy and a blind master-swordsman (think Korean Zatoichi!) in the middle of those power struggles. Their relation is at the heart of the film and provides its most comical moments. Great sets and costumes, fine fights, good cinematography…

FEAST OF THE ASSUMPTION: BTK AND THE OTERO FAMILY MURDERS – 6.5/10
This is a touching and thought-provoking account of how one of the sickest serial killers on record (BTK – Bind Torture Kill) affected the life of a victim that got away – a boy who was late from school just enough to avoid being killed with his parents and siblings, whose bodies he discovered. Complex emotions are evoked in yet another proof that sometimes true crime is stranger than genre fiction.

HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS –THE GODFATHER OF GORE – 6.5/10
The greatest asset of this documentary is that it doesn’t try to present its subject any more elevated or significant than he really is. H.G. Lewis may not be a great director, but he certainly deserves a big footnote in cinema history, and this film shows why. All is there: the (d)evolution from nudie to gore flicks, the particulars of how those splatter-fests were made, advertised and received, accompanied by valuable insights by David Friedman (Lewis’s producer), John Waters and tell-it-like-it-is Joe Bob Briggs.

THE EXECUTIONER – 6.5/10
The characters (prison guards and the inmates of a large South Korean prison) are handled well for a while, but the film, sadly, devolves into a pamphlet in the second half. Its anti-death-sentence message is commendable, but the over-melodramatic ways it is presented in the later parts of the film takes away from the story and characters.

BLACK DEATH – 6.5/10
Medieval setting. Plague is everywhere; witches; black magic; black sabbaths; dark woods… And yet, Christopher Smith (CREEP) decides to shoot the “dark ages” in broad daylight and rather sparse woods, with few shadows, while his story is not so much about witches and devilry as it is about the plague of Christianity. This makes for a good point in the end, but it is not so well prepared by the bulk which preceded it, and which mostly echoes THE WICKERMAN and other vastly superior titles. As is, the film is indecisive whether it wants to be a horror or a history drama (eventually it opts for the latter) and its insecurities make it look and feel half-hearted and slightly misguided, in spite of some good bits in it.

THE LOVED ONES – 6.5/10
A “troubled” girl has an unconventional (and brutal) ways of testing possible future husbands, and with the help of her sicko dad nevertheless. Our main guy is subjected to various tortures (psychological and corporeal), but we had too little time to get to know him before he ended up bound and gagged, so the involvement in his predicament is rather small. This Australian black torture comedy plays like a prolonged sick joke, and is pretty solid as such. Not particularly deep and far from a modern classic, but still, it’s entertaining enough.

SELL OUT! – 6.5/10
This plays like a very belated Malaysian discovery of Monty Python and especially of Terry Gilliam’s bleak and grotesque satires on consumerism and soulless corporations destroying idealistic and naïve individuals. The pace is slower than required for a good comedy, the song routines aren’t really needed (and the songs themselves are far from Eric Idle’s inspired and melodic tunes) and not all of the jokes really work. Still, this is a well-meaning, a bit naïve, sledge-hammer subtle satire with enough good moments to merit your attention. After all, it got the Silver Award (Asian films) from Fantasia audience.

PHOBIA 2 – 6.5/10
Above-average anthology with enough creeps (especially in the first two segments) and laughs (in the last one) to please genre fans. The second one is the best: a teenager ends up in hospital with a hurt leg. The old scary looking guy in the bed next to him seems to be much more than a dirty old man, but, in any case – he wants the boy’s body! The last segment is a pretty funny send-up on the Asian ghost-flicks craze, dealing with a horror film shoot in which reality and fiction are intriguingly interrelated and confused.

[REC] 2 – 6/10
Everybody else seems to like this sequel, so who am I to complain about the indistinguishable cast of unrecognizable helmeted soldiers roaming the corridors of the infested building, or about pointlessly introduced teen characters, or about constant twists which progressively render events sillier and sillier? It is fast-paced enough for people not to notice or care about this, and it is at least well-made enough to provide more scares than most stuff that passes for horror these days. So, check it out, but don’t expect a classic like the first one.

1 – 6/10
A visual feast and a thought-provoking mind-boggler which asks more questions than anyone could answer. In the end the film chews much more than it can swallow and its deliberate obscurantism may be more than some audiences are led to expect after the intriguing mystery in the beginning. It is all related to a book titled “1″ which describes EVERYTHING that happened during one minute everywhere in the world – to everyone.

DOWN TERRACE – 6/10
I don’t like the “verité”, almost Dogma style of shooting, and I don’t think much of “films” whose look resembles filmed theatrical performances or made-for-TV dramas. That aside, this is a solidly scripted and excellently acted black dramedy whose witty dialogues might need subtitles outside of UK to be properly appreciated.

MUTANT GIRLS SQUAD – 6/10
This delivers exactly what the fans of Japanese puerile “cult” splatter action comedies expect, so – you know who you are. Mutants, girls, imaginative and outrageous bloodletting, and craziness – it’s all there, in great amounts. It plays strictly for its (limited) audience, but within the confines of its ambitions, it is an honest, fun-loving romp.

OUTCAST – 5.5/10
A Clive Barker-like plot is directed and acted like a Mike Leigh film. Yeah, if a “naturalistic” approach to a monster movie with occult overtones sounds great to you, take a look at this. Sadly, they decided to invest too much in the twist, thus disabling a better understanding of the main character – a young man hounded by a sect and haunted by his (unknown) father’s supernatural legacy. Because of keeping the audiences in the dark for too long about certain crucial facts about what’s going on, there is no sufficient emotional investment in the boy’s plight and eventual tragedy.

RED WHITE & BLUE – 5.5/10
Yes, the performances are brave and very good. Yes, the film is painful, explicit and shocking. Yes, there is plentiful nudity, sex, torture and gore. But the point of all that eludes me. One character with an over-the-top background I could take: but THREE of them, with such extremely fucked up psychologies and grotesquely exaggerated personal histories are way too much for something which pretends to be a serious, realistic drama about human condition, or some such. Essentially, this plays more like an uncredited adaptation of Richard Laymon or Edward Lee’s gruesome “real”-life grotesqueries and sado-splatter-fests than an insightful peek into the lives and minds of real people.

I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE 2010 – 5/10
The remake is nowhere near the significance of the original. It is just a competent, polished, dumbed-down version for the strong-stomached empty-heads to cheer and root at the sadistic (and unrealistic) ways of dispatching people. It is a shallow product by the people who didn’t get a single thing worth getting from the original. Both films reflect their respective times – and our times are defined by rather more forgettable, lazy and shallow filmmakers (or should I say – craftsmen). The score is good and the make-up effects far more elaborate, to please the “demanding” SAW-crowd. And that’s all.

LA MEUTE (THE PACK) – 4.5/10
A half-assed French horror which opens half-promisingly but ends up being less than competent even on the most basic level, say, of scripting relatively convincing events, characters or monsters. Barely passable but entirely forgettable flick whose gore is nowhere near as extreme as some reports would have us believe. Even when it comes to using the great actor Philippe Nahon (HAUTE TENSION), or delivering the gore, this PACK is – half-assed.

WE ARE WHAT WE ARE – 4/10
This is a boring, uneventful, unintentionally funny and all-around clumsy Mexican attempt at delivering a social satire by means of a cannibal metaphor. Heavy-handed in all departments, and ultimately shallow and uninvolving. Both the drama and the horror aspects of the film are undercooked – yet the film is not even raw as a cannibal film should be.

THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE (FIRST SEQUENCE) – 2/10
I will forever remain mystified by the relative success of this thing with the audiences (and some critics). Is the great, sick concept enough to save a barely-competent direction and flat cinematography, poor acting, cheap sets and almost no effects? This dull, spiritless film would be a godsend to someone like Frank Henenlotter to invigorate it and exploit its central idea to the hilt, the way it should’ve been done. As is, however, this is just a one-joke “movie” where the joke gets stale pretty soon, and even lacks the punch in the end.

NEIGHBOR ZOMBIE – 2/10
I left this terrible, cheap South Korean bore-fest after 30 minutes, so I can’t write a review, only a warning: stay away from this time-waster.

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But that’s not all: a program called SUBVERSIVE SERBIA showed some great stuff from a place few people could locate on the map, and even fewer expected good films from. Since I co-programmed this selection with Mitch Davis, it would be inopportune for me to write reviews of them. Instead, I’ll just enumerate the facts. The following recent Serbian films were shown: a black-comedy road-movie splatter THE LIFE AND DEATH OF A PORNO GANG, shockingly shocking and insane A SERBIAN FILM, darkly-humorous fantasy TEARS FOR SALE (Director’s cut) and a cyberpunk anime TECHNOTISE: EDIT & I. Three somewhat older titles were also shown: a gloomy smallpox-epidemic disaster-horror VARIOLA VERA (1982), perversely supernatural adaptation of Gogol’s “Viy” in A HOLY PLACE (1990) and a gory slasher T. T. SYNDROME (2002).

Films from this program got more awards than any other Fantasia program this year: the jury awarded Mladen Djordjevic’s LIFE AND DEATH OF A PORNO GANG for BEST SCREENPLAY, while A SERBIAN FILM got SPECIAL MENTION for BEST FIRST FEATURE. The Fantasia 2010 Écran Fantastique prize went to the Serbian film TEARS FOR SALE. As for AUDIENCE AWARDS, A SERBIAN FILM got the Gold as BEST EUROPEAN, NORTH AMERICAN OR SOUTH AMERICAN FILM, and shared Gold with SYMBOL as MOST INNOVATIVE FILM. Also, TECHNOTISE: EDIT AND I got the Silver as BEST ANIMATED FILM.

There were some other great retro films on Fantasia 2010:

THE DEVILS (1971): the one-of-a-kind masterpiece by Ken Russell, who was in attendance and received a life-achievement award. Words cannot describe this audio-visual feast, but also the sentiments of disappointment when we realized that, for reasons too complicated and stupid (old feuds; censorship laws; unavailable prints…), the film was not shown in its 35mm glory, as promised, but from an inferior digital source. OK, THE DEVILS is such a great film that it would be still enjoyable even if watched in black & white through a gauze veil, or reenacted by hand-puppets, but still… a bitter taste was left after the screening of such a great cinematic feat from an inadequate source. The organizers did their best to provide the best possible print but in the last moment that sadly turned out to be impossible.

KURONEKO (1968), a masterpiece of Japanese horror, by the master Kaneto Shindo (ONIBABA). Shoot me, but after seeing this from a stunning 35mm print on a large screen I can claim that this is the best Japanese horror made before RING (1998). Yes, that means better than KWAIDAN (1964).

Sadly, I could not attend the screening of a recently restored version of the classic METROPOLIS (1926) accompanied by a live orchestra: by all accounts, it was an event not to be missed by any cinephile within the reasonable, accessible distance.

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Two more events deserve to be singled out:

NEVERMORE: AN EVENING WITH EDGAR ALLAN POE, a theatrical one-man show in which Jeffrey Combs shows his significant dramatic chops as Edgar Allan Poe himself. This clever and entertaining mixture of Poe’s poems, stories and life was concocted by Stuart Gordon & Dennis Paoli and directed by Gordon.

Stuart Gordon & Dennis Paoli also held a panel on ADAPTING H. P. LOVERCRAFT FOR THE SCREEN: A MASTER CLASS. It was an insightful presentation (with clips from their Lovecraftian movies) where the quotes from Lovecraft were well integrated in a clear, precise and well-rounded two-hours lecture which never felt tedious or confusing: quite the opposite! The audience wanted more!

After all this (which barely covers ¼ of all films shown!), is there any need at all to stress that Fantasia is the leading genre festival on the North American continent? Its carefully selected films, events, guests and exclusive programs make it a delight and treasure to visit and enjoy. It’s pleasing to hear official announcement that they sold 10% more tickets than last year: obviously, the festival’s inevitable growth is followed by its faithful and ever increasing audience. This last fact should be a definite proof to the powers that be that Fantasia means business and should be taken even more seriously when the time comes to provide funds for the next year’s edition which will, hopefully, be even bigger and better.