Fantasia 2021 – Part 2

Well, we made it through Fantasia and I am so grateful to have made the (virtual journey) with our neighbors to the North. It was a welcoming event that kept me busy for a solid twenty days, but during this time I saw a boatload of exciting movies and only the occasional stinker…and even that one wasn’t a total write-off. Check out Part 1 here and then read below for my final reviews of a number of new movies that were shown at Fantasia 2021 — and might just be coming soon to a theater (or OnDemand platform) near you!

Yakuza Princess

The fun thing about these film fests is that often you decide on a movie without having time to do much recon work before it arrives in your field of vision.  Allowing you to screen without expectation, I’ve often found the best surprises in these situations.  That’s how I felt with YAKUZA PRINCESS, an action crime samurai drama based on a graphic novel set in Brazil. If I’m being honest, it takes a while for director Vicente Amorim to bring together some of the disparate storylines, but it’s all critical set-up for the unexpected second half that introduces twists (and oh boy, would I not spoil one big one for you!) that are genuine thrills.  An amnesiac (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), bloodied and bruised, flees from his hospital room on the hunt to reclaim his memory.  This puts him on a crash course with Akemi (the mononymous Masumi) an apparently ordinary woman that harbors an extraordinary backstory.  Some elements scream straight-to-Netflix cheapie and the dialogue (or is the acting?) is a bit of an eye-roll, but the drive to push the narrative into less than oft-traveled territory keeps this one rushing at you full speed ahead.  Look for this one to be a title that nets a healthy audience response (and maybe even a sequel) when it is released.

Don’t Say Its Name

Those who want it to remain summer forever should steer clear of the winter-set DON’T SAY ITS NAME, a chilly endeavor with few thrills unlikely to inspire much in the way of heat beyond the niche festival circuit. That’s disappointing to report because with its Native American crew and cast, with a more cohesive storyline and better performances it could have stood as a lightning rod example of the furthering of representational voices in film.  It’s just not strong enough to do much but keep the door open for the next storyteller that has a more cohesive yarn to spin.  After a woman is killed in a small indigenous community, tensions mount as it leads to more bloodshed by an unseen entity that is targeting members of a mining company attempting to overtake the land.  The good news is that I did enjoy leads Madison Walsh and Sera-Lys McArthur as two women hunting down an unknown evil using different methods. The bad news is that it’s not hard to connect the dots in Rueben Martell’s film and despite a doozy of a finale where things really start to get hoppin’, much of DON’T SAY ITS NAME trades on cliches and goopy acting to pass the time. 

Broadcast Signal Intrusion

Having seen so many horror films over the years, I’m a bit desensitized to the masked killers and creatures that like to gobble people up, so it takes a lot for me to get truly unnerved by any movie for a significant length of time.  Boy, oh, boy did Jacob Gentry’s BROADCAST SIGNAL INTRUSTION have me reaching for the light switch, though.  The ‘90s-set creep-out follows a man (an excellent Harry Shum, Jr.) grieving the loss of his girlfriend who becomes obsessed with a series of random television ‘interruptions’ (hacks, we might call them today) on local channels years earlier.  As he begins to piece together a mystery far deeper (and bloodier) than merely who bypassed a broadcast signal for fun, he finds himself in grave danger when a killer’s hidden tracks are unearthed.  There’s a phenomenal sense of atmosphere throughout this one, buoyed by Shum’s blurred reality performance and an enigmatic turn from Kelley Mack as a stranger he picks up along the way.  One of the strongest films overall I’ve yet to see at the festival…and legitimately unnerving at times.

Bull

It took me a while, but I finally worked out in my head where I knew lead actor Neil Maskell from, and it was Ben Wheatley’s 2011 pulverizing Kill List.  While BULL isn’t quite as much of a hell ride as that earlier (also worthwhile) film was, it’s still a dynamite revenge thriller that is drenched in dread throughout.  Telling a story with two different timelines can sometimes be confusing for an audience that doesn’t always track how/when they will intersect but director and writer Paul Andrew Williams juggles both without ever making them compete with each other.  That winds up working in the favor for the actors as well, giving Maskell and others free range to go a bit wild with making broad choices and, surprisingly, it works in wicked ways.  When the head of a local crime family (David Hayman) begins to see those closest to him murdered in most violent ways, all signs point to his former son-in-law and hired muscle, Bull (Maskell).  There’s just one problem, he had him killed and buried years earlier per the wishes of his strung-out daughter (Lois Brabin-Platt) who wanted her husband and father of her child out of their lives forever.  So if Bull is really back, who did they bury?  And if Bull is actually dead, who is this new man?  The violence is extreme but so is the payoff and I can see BULL being the kind of slow-burn indie that gets far on word-of-mouth business. 

Hellbender

Every time I do one of those “Best Streaming Horror” searches, a title that comes up is The Deeper You Dig, a well-reviewed horror film made by an entire collective family of filmmakers.  The Adams Family (dad John, daughter Zelda, mother Toby Poser, and more) contribute as writer, directors, actors, and other jobs to get the movies made and they had a new title, HELLBENDER, at Fantasia.  I’ve yet to see that earlier film but you better believe I will after catching their latest, an extremely satisfying bit of occult fun that has a distinctly female voice and perspective.  A mother (Poser) and her daughter (Zelda Adams) live a quiet existence isolated in the woods.  Eating meals consisting of pinecones and other fallen foods, the daughter knows nothing much of the outside world.  When she meets a man in the woods who tells her about his niece that lives nearby, it’s the first step toward the daughter experiencing people her own age…and all the problems that come with it.  Eventually awakening something inside her the mother has long attempted to contain, it pits the two women in a power struggle for dominance in which only one can rule the roost.  For what could be deemed a “family project” this is creative, exciting filmmaking and the acting is top-notch as well.  Poser, especially, is a force to be reckoned with and gives the tale not just its surprising amount of heart but its solid backbone as well.  A strong recommendation!

The Righteous

Here’s one of those well-made films with recognizable actors that has set out on a noble mission but can’t exactly justify its feature length status.  The point of THE RIGHTEOUS makes itself obvious before the movie is half over and I couldn’t help but imagine how much more effective writer/director/co-star Mark O’Brien’s project would have been had it been slimmed down to the length of a short film. It definitely would have cut out some of the lengthier passages that don’t serve to move the small stable of characters forward, though every actor including O’Brien and long-time character actors Henry Czerny and Mimi Kuzyk do exemplary work.  Films about faith and those experiencing a crisis in their belief are often obvious fodder for horror because that’s when evil can sneak in and take hold of the vulnerable.  O’Brien doesn’t necessarily go for the path that you think he will, but as a stranger that shows up on the doorstep of a couple despondent over the loss of a child, you keep wanting something with a little more resonance to occur.  The more the stranger reveals to the man (Czerny), a former priest, the more we see he didn’t arrive there by chance and that he harbors a darkness within only the couple can make right.  Kudos for the beautiful back and white cinematography and lovely production design, but THE RIGHTEOUS didn’t sit completely right with me. 

Stanleyville

It honestly took me until STANLEYVILLE was nearly over before I realized the film was intended more as a dark satirical comedy than a subversive horror with nightmarish qualities.  Even then, it didn’t much improve my mood on the film from Maxwell McCabe-Lokos, a Canadian production that sets us up with the promise of something we can engage with, only to find that it’s a nearly impenetrable slice of unflavored gelatin served up as some sought-after dessert.  Five wacky strangers are gathered in a locked room to vie for the chance to win…wait for it, a compact SUV.  They have to compete in a series of increasingly inane and violent tasks to “win” and the market for SUV’s must be big in Canada because the five go to nutso lengths to get their vehicle.  Look, I’m all for the strange and askew and would have welcomed seeing a stage production of STANLEYVILLE, which is how most of the performances are pitched – for an onstage audience.  Acting so hard I thought my TV was going to explode, the cast is working in such a frenzy to play along with the game that eventually you’ll need to actively resist the urge to mute the volume. Definitely on the lesser enjoyable side of the festival offerings.

The Last Thing Mary Saw

Here’s another one of those entries that has the benefit of a great cast, location, and atmosphere but not the story to bring it to a full-length feature.  Let’s not shortchange writer/director Edoardo Vitaletti too much, though, because when the film is in the zone it’s got some major shivers to send.  Set in 1843 where a young girl has been blinded and stands accused of a horrific crime she recounts for an interrogator (and us), there’s a skittishness to everything on display and at first that works to the advantage Vitaletti and his respectable assembled cast.  Eventually, you begin to get the feeling that you’ve been on this road before and indeed the beats become familiar even if they are handled with a superlative amount of economy considering the small-scale production values.  Performances push this one into the recommend column, led by Stefanie Scott and Isabelle Fuhrman (on a roll this year after her might-be-breakout work in the Tribeca hit The Novice) as two young women punished by an uptight society that doesn’t take disobedience lightly.  As the sinister matriarch presiding over a family whipped into a religious fervor, Judith Roberts tingles the spine without saying a word…or moving a finger. 

When I Consume You

What films like WHEN I CONSUME YOU best illustrate is how to go the distance with a one sentence plot synopsis.  “A woman and her brother seek revenge against a mysterious stalker.” is how the film from writer/director Perry Blackshear is described and that’s the best way I’d suggest reporting it out to people and then leave it at that.  To say more might give away the tangles Blackshear introduces early on, ensnaring the viewer into wanting to know more and then actually providing resolution that satisfies.  Daphne Shaw (Libby Ewing) is a former addict putting her life back together again but troubled by a shadow that has found her after years lying dormant.  At the same time, her younger brother Wilson (Evan Dumouchel) trails behind her in the fixing what’s broken arena, struggling to find a job and facing serious co-dependency issues with his sibling.  A fissure event sets the two on a search for a violent man who, turns out, very much wants to be found.  Depending on one’s mood, you’re either going to go along with what Blackshear is very obviously doing or reject it outright as little more than illustrative theater…but it’s got a few moments that sent me soaring out of my seat in fright and both leads make for compelling viewing even when its solely focused on drama instead of horror. 

Martyrs Lane

This UK film from writer/director Ruth Platt lives in two worlds, one is a stark reality of grief and loss and the other is an almost playful fairytale with a ghostly edge.  Welcome to MARTYRS LANE, a rather decent tale that boasts a real rarity…two child performers that don’t make you want to claw at the screen.  Kiera Thompson is Leah, the youngest child of a popular vicar in a small village and his piano teacher wife (Denise Gough).  Picked on by her older sister, Leah acts out as a way to make her presence known, but her curiosity to the contents of her mother’s treasured locket opens the door to a new friend that begins visiting her at night.  Giving her clues which point to a family tragedy that no one speaks of, the girl (Sienna Sayer) visits Leah nighty and becomes her special confidant. However, the closer Leah gets to assembling the clues, the more insistent the other little girl becomes on having things her way…or else.  What helps to keep MARTYRS LANE in check is Platt’s balance of the scary with the somber, ably going from one emotion to the other without leaving the viewer in a whiplash state.  The details are all laid out for you throughout the picture to decipher the mystery…but never what happens at the end. 

Agnes

This is a film I had wanted to catch at Tribeca but slipped through my fingers at the last minute, so I was glad to have a second chance here at Fantasia.  I’d also cheated a bit and peeked at the reviews out of Tribeca so was prepared for the tone and timbre of director Mickey Reece’s oddball mix of religious horror with fish-out-of-water humor. Still, I had a hard time with this one and not just because it’s advertising itself as one movie when it has its foot halfway out the door most of the time in a different universe.  The exorcism of a nun brings a priest and a young man waiting to take his vows to a convent where a lot of hullabaloo and shenanigans go on for about 40 minutes.  There’s some dreadfully arch acting from actors I won’t name and the whole thing plays like a big prank is being pulled on…someone (the audience?).  Thankfully (for me, at least), Reece pivots dramatically about halfway through and that’s when AGNES becomes less of what it was and more of what it maybe should be – a focused character study.  Reece can’t help adding some crazed touches but as much as you want to compare AGNES to SAINT MAUD for once there are too many people IN on the joke to create much of an emotional response anywhere else.   This ends up amusing only the people the made it.

All the Moons

This is my first year covering film festivals to this degree, but I imagine veteran festivalgoers and critics hope to find something like ALL THE MOONS with each event they attend.  An absolutely gorgeous spin on the vampire tale coming out of Spain, this is destined to be mentioned in the same breath as modern classics like Let the Right One In.  Scary when required but more interested in, ahem, fleshing out its characters, writer/director Igor Legarreta sets the film late in the 1800’s when an orphan is saved from a bombing by a stranger that chooses her to receive an eternal gift.  Soon, she is on her own and eventually learns to adapt to daylight…but not her craving for blood.  Befriending a man still mourning the death of his daughter, the two forge a familial bond just as her hunger is reaching a fever pitch.  Led by a stunningly composed performance from Haizea Carneros, ALL THE MOONS is by far the best film I saw at Fantasia and one to keep your eye out for.  This is classy, sophisticated genre filmmaking that doesn’t skimp on developing its players, nor does it hold back on the gore that comes with its fear field either. See this one immediately so you can be ahead of the curve after it becomes a low-key hit.

Ida Red

Even though Fantasia isn’t expressly a horror-specific festival, the presence of a marginal crime drama like IDA RED is still a bit of a surprise.  In some ways, I get it.  I mean, in a sea of indie films with less than familiar faces it’s a nifty get to have a flick with an Oscar-winner and other recognizable stars populating the scenery but when they’re awash in hokey pokey hokum like this the viewer is much better served going for the non-household name.  Still running her crime operation from inside a federal prison, Melissa Leo plays the mama bear of a family of no-goods including Josh Hartnett and Frank Grillo. With the mom about to expire due to terminal cancer, her relatives conspire to bribe a parole officer to get her out, even as they plan their biggest score yet.  It takes a long time for these simple events to come together, so we’re left with writer/director John Swab’s tin ear dialogue and Grillo’s out of character, off-the-mark, scenery guzzling performance.  Only Hartnett hints at where the gold in the film could have been found, but the poor actor is stuck yet again playing the least awful member of a clan of degenerates and ultimately has nothing of true substance to work with.  A delirious ending is confusing but in line with a film that never finds its footing.

#BLUE_WHALE

For producer Timur Bekmambetov, it’s obvious that when you find something that works, you stick with it.  Excelling in recent years with screenlife films like Profile, Searching, and the Unfriended films, the producer reaches over to Mother Russia for #BLUE_WHALE, and repurposes it for English-speaking countries. As with his other film, Bekmambetov knows how to pick ‘em and even if it’s not nearly as well made as others (you can tell it’s been fiddled with a lot to get it to translate correctly) it has its fair share of freaky frames.  Trading less on supernatural elements and relying on good ‘ole detective work, #BLUE_WHALE follows Dana (Anna Potebnya) as she joins an online game, the same one her sister was involved with when she stepped in front of a train.  Presided over by a terrifying masked figure that has strict rules to follow with punishments for those that step out of line, the game has a series of levels, each requiring more sacrifice/commitment than the last.  To find out the truth about her sister, Dana will have to see it through to the end…but will she survive long enough to uncover the identity of the gamemaster?  Director Anna Zaytseva could trim a solid 10 minutes out of this and still come in with a strong mystery for us to follow and Potebnya is no slouch of a lead, either.  As with most of these films, I find it best to watch them as close to the screen as possible with all the lights off…immersing yourself in the world but also readying yourself for the frights!

The Last Matinee

This beautiful looking gore fest from Uruguay is 88 minutes but should honestly have clocked in around 50.  Even fans of the film would have to admit that director Maximiliano Contenti gets a little overindulgent almost from the start with his retro-feeling horror film set in a rundown theater where a madman has locked the doors and starts picking off the customers.  Hey, a little overindulgence is fine don’t get me wrong, and when you have the kind of giallo-adjacent killings that go on within THE LAST MATINEE you have to sort of admire the assured-hand that has created these wonders of blood and guts.  However, there’s something to be said for pace as well and before the film is half over the admiration of effects has worn off and you start to desire things to tighten up and take off.  Sadly, that just never happens and while the killings are excellent, the story is nonexistent.  That leaves THE LAST MATINEE feeling like a good-looking demo reel for a talented special effects make-up artist instead of a new cult classic you should be clamoring to get your digital hands on.

Tin Can

Woman wakes up in a tight-fit chamber with no idea how she got there.  Hmm…that sounded like something I’ve already seen this year and indeed Oxygen premiered on Netflix in May to good reviews and positive word of mouth.  It took a concept and ran with it for nearly all of its 100 minutes, finding clever ways to think “out of the box.”  I wasn’t exactly expecting TIN CAN be the same film, but I was hoping for one that made good on its intriguing premise like that previous movie did.  Sadly, it barely justifies a mention as the final movie I’m reviewing for Fantasia 2021.  After a parasitic organism begins to take over the bodies of the human race, doctors attempt to find a way to fight it and just as a brilliant female scientist discovers a possible cure, she is knocked unconscious and wakes up in this holding chamber for the infected.   To the credit of the film, Anna Hopkins is a dynamite lead and carries the film as long as she can…but director Seth A. Smith has other plans for the second half of his frustrating feature that kind of defy easy explanation.  How about we just say that everything starts to rust pretty fast and that by the time it has reached its conclusion there’s little remaining of what started off as an interesting premise.  It does contain the single most uncomfortable shot (for men) in any film I saw at the festival…so there’s that.

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