Here’s a round up of the movies I’ve seen so far at Fantasia Festival 2013.
I’ve organized the reviews by country (except for short films which I’ve grouped separately), so please pick a country or just read them all in order:
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Maggie comes home one day to find her boyfriend Chris already waiting for her. This is particularly surprising because she saw him die two weeks earlier. As they come to terms with his resurrection, Chris’ friend Jacob demonstrates his expertise on the science behind this phenomenon and they must decide whether to let this awesome power loose on the world. This is an ultra-low budget sci-fi, reminiscent of Primer or Fantasia 2010′s Phasma Ex Machina. The director does a great job of showing that you don’t need big budget special effects to make a compelling and believable sci-fi story, and the actors make the characters completely believable. It lacks a little polish but you’ll soon forget about that and get drawn into the narrative.
The premise of this movie is that a geologist joins a research team to explore some new sinkholes that have opened up in a remote Chilean jungle. His wife comes with him but waits at the nearby inn while he goes down with the sinkhole expedition. While she waits, she is increasingly distressed by apparent supernatural influences, perhaps the pull of the sinkhole themselves.
This movie is awful. It is slow, heavy, boring and meandering, with un-interesting characters. I find it hard to say anything good about it. The production values were ok I suppose, but the even the cinematography was poor, with heavy use of blurring and extreme darkness making it hard to see what is happening at times. But worst of all is the writing. Apart from lacking any real purpose or direction, it commits the unforgiveable sin of having a sizable chunk of the movie (its most interesting part, and the only part that actually takes place underground) turn out to be “just a dream”. Which just leaves you feeling like you wasted your time. Avoid this movie at all costs.
At Fantasia 2011, this pair of film entrepreneurs launched Israel’s first horror movie, Rabies, one of the surprise hits of the festival. Now they are back with something even darker, “Big Bad Wolves”. The storyline concerns the pursuit of a pedophile murderer who has been committing hideous acts and must be brought to justice, and the lead characters, a cop and the father of one of the victims, are willing to go to any lengths to make the man they believe is the killer pay. It’s a clever and at times darkly funny narrative, which holds a mirror up to society and its mixed messages about “violence is ok if it’s done to bad people” – an issue of course which has even greater significance in Israel. Brutal at times but all-too-believable, it’s well worth a watch.
This was the onlyIsraeli movie shown at Fantasia 2013.
Library Wars is a manga comic with a very original premise. It is 2019, and a government agency called the Media Betterment Agency, originally designed to prevent unsuitable materials from being accessible by minors has now evolved into a military force with the right to enter bookstores and homes and confiscate and destroy banned books. Meanwhile, the library system has been allowed to preserve those same books for the public record, and it too has developed a military arm – the Library Defense Force – which is allowed to use force to defend those books, though only on library premises. As the title suggests, the plot concerns an all out war between these two armies, a war over the freedom of information and of society itself. Once you suspend disbelief and get your head around the somewhat unlikely idea that a single government would fund two ideologically opposed armies, you realize this is a premise that really brings some great ideas to play – and of course is hugely topical given recent censorship/child protection developments in the US & the UK.
The movie adaptation is compelling largely because of the bizarreness of the situations, which allow for some great moments of comedy and drama. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a war film set in such a modern urban setting before, and this makes it particularly memorable. There are also some great speeches and dialogues about the importance of freedom and the dangers of censorship. The movie also has the obligatory love story as its framing device.. which is cute, albeit a little one-dimensional. On the whole I did like Library Wars – but more for the concept, for which praise is owed to the comic more than the movie… It didn’t do as much with the premise as it could have. There was the potential here to make something as ground-breaking and profound as 1984 or Fahrenheit 451 but the “war over censorship” was reduced to a plot device, an excuse for a battle background. I was left wanting more. I can only hope that when the inevitable Western remake comes around, they make something a little deeper and with a little more to say (and hopefully without reducing it to Independence Day style flag-waving).
If you’d told me someone could make an engaging and compelling movie about a group of editors compiling a dictionary, I wouldn’t have believed you, but that is exactly what “The Great Passage” is. We get to see the team working hard to achieve the goal of a “living dictionary for the modern age” over a 15 year period, and in doing so we see and feel the ups & downs, the loves & losses of the five main characters involved. This is a slow-paced character drama, but it’s also very engaging and moving. I am reminded of what William Zinsser wrote in “On Writing Well”, “You’ll find [how to tell a good story] if you look for the human element. Somewhere in every drab institution are men and women who have a fierce attachment to what they are doing and are rich repositories of lore.” And this is so true. Take any given moment in this story and it’s rather mundane – a love letter, an error in a dictionary, office tension. But when we are invited to step back and view this journey and the character’s lives at a larger scale it becomes something much more. We see some characters grow while others wither away, we see love and enthusiasm blossom while others battle hardships – in short, everything that happens in real life.
In watching this movie I felt like Jean-Luc Picard in the Star Trek episode “Inner Light”; I feel like I have lived a lifetime with these people, and spent time in their world. This is incredibly skillful writing, which of course is largely due to the original novel upon which the movie is based.. But to achieve this feat in the scope of a 2 hour movie is nothing short of remarkable feat. This is a moving piece of human drama, and is very well made indeed.
In Ancient Rome, architect Lucius Modestus is running out of ideas. Fortunately, inspiration is delivered in the most unexpected way. He passes out in the Roman bathhouse and finds himself in modern day Japan, a place with no shortage of bathroom innovations to draw upon. While there he is drawn to the young attractive 20th century girl Mami, an aspiring manga artist who may be just the muse he is looking for. But sometimes time travellers can disrupt history, and soon the fate of the Roman Empire and the reputation of Emperor Hadrian himself hangs in the balance. Can the pair combine their skills to change the destiny of mighty Rome?
This movie (and the comic it is based upon) is hugely original, and very skilfully executed, with a good pace, and engaging narrative, and above all plenty of jokes and humour as we follow Lucius on his adventures. It is refreshing how this movie never allows itself to get bogged down in the science-fiction of time travel, nor the cheesy tropes of the rom-com. While still doing a great duty to both aspects, it never misses an opportunity for fun! The audience was laughing all the way through; the director definitely is a student of the Back to The Future school of sci-fi.
The production values are great, but not perfect, and the sight of Ancient Romans talking in Japanese takes a little getting used to, but is soon forgotten. All in all a very solid sci-fi comedy. Recommended.
This movie is a crime thriller of sorts, but verges more to the philosophical than the action/suspense usually seen in this type of film. It had some interesting aspects to it, but as a whole it is something of a mystery to me what it was trying to achieve. There is the violent-but-sensitive kneecapper Ronnie, who is having a change of heart on his violent ways, asylum-seeking Angolan farm labourer Eduardo, with his dark past, and an older couple seeking revenge for their daughter’s murder. There is a slight supernatural element too, with suggestions of out-of-body experiences, clairvoyance and witchcraft. But these fragments do not gel together into a story or a purpose, and alas the movie did not move me or interest me enough to really care to make sense of it.
Read my reviews of International collaborations including the Netherlands here
View the View the full list of movies from Netherlands shown at Fantasia 2013.
Pol is a 17 year old boy with a talking teddy bear. But to say that Animals is a movie about a boy with a talking bear is a bit like saying that Titanic is a movie about an iceberg that crashes into a ship. It’s true but that’s only one small part of a much bigger narrative. This movie is quite unique and very hard to convey in words, especially while avoiding spoilers; It feels mysterious and intriguing for much of its play time, and as you experience the challenges and growing pains that Pol and his friends face, your mind is occupied with bigger questions about the nature of the reality you are watching, and the motivations of the students at Pol’s English private school in Spain. A girl goes missing and you wonder if she died, committed suicide or maybe never even existed in the first place. Even a stray dog in the wilderness seems to take on a deeper significance. “Animals” manages to tackle some serious issues affecting teens while also staying somewhat light, playing games with the viewer as to what is real and what is not. The movie’s characters speak a mixture of Spanish and English, and surprisingly Martin Freeman plays significant supporting role. The movie I could compare it to most would be Donnie Darko – but it’s much more “real” and less sci-fi. If you like your movies deep and intriguing you’ll love this.
View the full list of Spanish movies shown at Fantasia 2013.
A dramatization of the director’s own life might seem self-indulgent, but in this case it’s not because Patrick Read Johnson has a very interesting story to tell. This is a period piece, telling the story of his formulative years, making home-made movies inspired by 2001 and Jaws, trying to figure out how to get into Hollywood, and the huge anticipation for what he hoped would be his life-defining moment of seeing Star Wars premiere on the 25th of May 1977. I’m about a decade too old to really feel the nostalgia of this piece (I was born in 1977 so didn’t see Star Wars at the cinema) but nonetheless I can appreciate it; as an 80s kid I certainly felt the influence of Star Wars and Steven Spielberg on the home-made movies I made with friends. And the tale of an awkward geeky kid trying to fit in while also following his passions for sci-fi is one that many of us can relate to. The movie showed in a rough cut; it still needs funding to be finished. But even so, it does a great job of capturing an era in movies (the same era explored by Rewind This!, the VHS documentary which is also showing at Fantasia 2013) and is funny and heartfelt to watch.
Availability: Movie not yet finished. Rough cuts showing at festivals, funding sought to complete & distribute the feature. Director expects to release in 2015. more
Links: Fantasia | IMDb | Trailer (spoiler-free)
The Davison family get together at their parents’ mansion for the first time in years, all the children with partners in tow (some of which are not who they seem to be). Old arguments and tensions flare to the surface, but suddenly the family has to face an even bigger challenge, as masked attackers invade their home and begin committing brutal acts against them. This is a very solid and skilfully executed home invasion movie. The fact that it the preyed upon are a family not just friends adds a lot of emotional poignancy, and the hidden depths of the many characters keeps things interesting and unexpected. It has the usual “bad guys get what they deserve” vibe to it, and the violence is treated somewhat lightly. But this is not an outright comedy. It does have some very Whedon-esque “girl with a big axe” type moments that had the Fantasia audience yelling with delight. It doesn’t add anything new to the genre but what it does, it does very well and it’s a very well packaged piece of horror entertainment.
If you mashed up American Pie, Scream and Frequency you might get something close to this movie – but actually that doesn’t do it justice, what we have here is a uniquely original sci-fi concept, something that’s not quite time-travel, not quite human cloning, but bizarre enough to provide dark moments, comedy and to raise some very interesting moral questions. The plot concerns three high school friends, returning from their first year in college to reunite with high school friends at a huge house party hosted by their wealthy friend… A meteorite lands and a strange electrical energy surrounds the party, setting in motion a chain of inexplicable events. As the trio try to come to terms with this they must fight for survival. On the face of it it’s just another “wild frat party gone awry” movie but in fact it has a lot more depth than that, and has some interesting points to make about fear of the unknown and what sinister acts perfectly normal people can be driven to under life-threatening circumstances or when fighting to win back a lost love. Also I’m glad to say this has far from your average Hollywood ending.
VHS was not just a new format. By putting movies in the home and in people’s hands, where they could watch, rewind and rewatch whenever they liked, it completely changed the relationship between cinema and the viewer. This documentary is a love letter to the VHS era, and features interviews with everyone who was anyone in the VHS industry. But more than that, it shows us how much more there is to VHS – the box artists, the collectors & flea markets, the bootleggers & tape traders, the permanent imprints that show how a tape was viewed.. it also shows us how it inspired a generation of movie makers to do it themselves. It also reminds us what we lose as we switch to Netflix, iTunes and BitTorrent.. a certain amount of freedom, choice and the value of a physical item. This is a great documentary which will be meaningful and nostalgic to anyone who’s ever owned a VHS tape.
Read my reviews of International collaborations including the USA here
View the full list of movies from USA shown at Fantasia 2013.
This is one of those great, original pieces of sci-fi that never gets made in Hollywood. It’s not without action and tension, but it’s definitely more of a thinking sci-fi. In a dystopian and heavily militarized future, the UK is in a long and bitter cold war with China (though that is just the setting, not the plot). Most of the action takes place in a Ministry of Defence research lab, where scientist Vincent is trying to build the first truly artificial life form. He wants to use it to save his sick daughter, but of course the MOD have other ideas. The movie, which is very well grounded in computer science and current understanding of artificial intelligence, explores the question of what might happen when we are finally able to build a machine that can pass the Turing Test, that is, to build a machine that is indistiguishable from a human. It effectively asks the question: “When the lines between humanity and machine are blurred, what lies ahead for the world, and for the species?” The Machine has a very atmospheric ambience, with dark, partly lit scenes and slow lingering shots which are very reminiscent of Bladerunner. The score too, is very Vangelis-like, which really adds to the emotional power of the scenes. I don’t want to say too much about the specifics of what happens for fear of spoiling the plot, but what’s clever about it is that amongst the humans and the machines, there are both emotional, caring people and heartless, calculating types. This movie is in someways like Terminator, dealing with the question of the Singularity and machines overtaking their creators – but it is a much more human story. I would liked to have seen a slightly bigger story, but the team have done a masterful job with a very limited budget. It is certainly the best sci-fi to come out of Wales since Doctor Who was rebooted!
Check out my review of OXV: The Manual, another Fantasia 2013 movie involving UK collaborators.
View the View the full list of movies from UK shown at Fantasia 2013.
Back in 1971, paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren are called in to help investigate some very unsettling things that are happening to the Perron family in the farmhouse they have just moved into. This is a powerful and affecting supernatural horror movie, superbly executed so that it keeps you on the edge of your seat (and jumping off it in shock) from the very beginning to the very end. The fact that it is based upon a true story adds additional emotional impact to the experience. This movie is a real classic, and deserves to take its place up there with The Exorcist and Poltergeist as a landmark in the ghost-movie genre. It’s packed with very original scare moments and unexpected shocks but never feels cheesy. A very solid creepy-without-being-gory movie that will stand the test of time.
This movie was nothing short of brilliant. In an alternate world everyone has a frequency, and this is an important part of who they are. Highs are destined to be lucky, lows are destined to have nothing go right. If highs and lows get too close, the world shakes violently. Zak and Marie are just such a pair of opposites, and can spend only a minute together each year. But Zak finds a way to change his frequency, upsetting the natural order of the universe and in doing so, calling into question love, fate and destiny. It’s an ingenious and hugely original piece of writing, which is expertly delivered through great acting, excellent cinematography and a perfect pace that feeds you more and more interesting nuggets that help you make sense of their world but also ponder the nature of our own – the ideas of the movie connect to everything from class and privilege to free will and luck.
Reminiscent of the work of Vincenzo Natali or Michel Gondry, it’s a hugely original, philosophical sci-fi that will leave you thinking deeply and feeling inspired; I can’t recommend it highly enough!
View the full list of Australian movies shown at Fantasia 2013.
View the full list of US movies shown at Fantasia 2013.
View the full list of Netherlands movies shown at Fantasia 2013.
View the full list of English/UK movies shown at Fantasia 2013.
A dark and spooky little Halloween tale about a Jack-o’-Lantern carving session that takes an unexpected and disturbing turn. Well-executed special effects, good acting and good cinematography make it quite memorable.
I saw just some of the short films on offer. View the full list of short films shown at Fantasia 2013.