This article was last modified on July 14, 2018.


Fantasia 2018, Part One: July 12 – July 15

Another hot, humid summer can only mean one thing… it is time for Fantasia! Yes, that 3-week festival of everything “fantastic” about genre film. A sneak peek at the biggest horror, science fiction and fantasy films of the 2018-2019 season.

In years past, I would give each film its own page, but when I end up reviewing 25 titles, that gets to be a lot of content. To make it easier for me, and for those who don’t like their news feeds bogged down, this year I’m breaking it down into 4-day bite-size snippets. Every four days a new batch of reviews will go up. Also new, I am adding in actual “grade style” scores, so if my writing is not clear enough or you just don’t feel like reading, you can jump to the end.

At the end of the festival, there will be a recap of the best films. But that’s a few weeks off… Without further ado, let’s start off with day one!

TREMBLE ALL YOU WANT — Played July 12 — directed by Akiko Ohku, Japan

This ironic romantic comedy follows 24-year-old Yoshika’s single-minded attempts to start a relationship with her high school crush Ichi (‘One’) while she wearily tolerates the needy advances of her own piteous admirer Ni (‘Two’).

The irony the plot setup provides is not perfect, and this may be the first strike against the film. Some very clever social commentary could be made if Yoshika’s crush on Ichi was equal to Ni’s crush on Yoshika. But, in fact, they are worlds apart. Yoshika’s crush on Ichi is sad but harmless — she makes no real attempt to pursue him, and he does not even know he exists. Ni, on the other hand, goes out of his way to be with Yoshika and is obnoxious at every turn. This is not some John Hughes tale where the “shy nerd” eventually gets the girl. But maybe it should be.

Deborah Young of the Hollywood Reporter says the director “has a feeling for the immature, neurotic female mind and she hits the nail on the head many times.” Young praises the performance of our lead actress (Mayu Matsuoka) but otherwise is not fully on board. Her criticisms are valid and I must echo them: the film is a bit long at two hours, and there is nothing really new here that would make it worth watching outside its home country.

The big question is: why was this film chosen to play at Fantasia? The festival’s love of Japanese culture is no secret, but a Japanese “chick lit” romantic comedy? That’s a bit outside the box for viewers looking for the latest genre film. TREMBLE has no real fantasy elements beyond some rather tame daydreams. Maybe this film is for you, but not for me. Score: C

LA NUIT A DÉVORÉ LE MONDE — Played July 13 — directed by Dominique Rocher, France

The morning after a party, a young man (Anders Danielsen Lie, PERSONAL SHOPPER) wakes up to find Paris invaded by zombies.

I know what you’re thinking: the zombie subgenre has run its course, it has all been done, and all we have left are low-budget derivatives and witty satires. And you would be right. But somehow, LA NUIT proves to be the exception to the rule. Half WALKING DEAD and half 28 DAYS LATER, it never truly rips off either of them. (There is even a paintball scene reminiscent of DAWN OF THE DEAD, but not enough to be a clear theft.) And the gore effects, makeup, and “zombie choreography” are all top-notch. Within the first ten minutes we are treated to a realistic murder-suicide, so if blood and guts isn’t your thing, this will not be for you.

The strength of the film is that it never really focuses on the zombies, but rather on our protagonist’s descent into madness and his attempts to fight this inevitable insanity. This is a very human story about loss and loneliness, as well as ingenuity. For the viewer’s sake, it helps that our hero has an incredible knack for turning household objects into musical instruments. He manages to find a symphony in despair.

Special mention must be made of Denis Lavant, who plays the zombie Alfred. While I have not seen HOLY MOTORS (2012), for which he received numerous nominations and a few wins from festivals around the world, his highly physical performance in LA NUIT is admirable. I can’t recall a zombie since DAY OF THE DEAD’s “Bub” that seemed so human. All in all, a fresh film from a rotting subgenre. Score: B+

BOILED ANGELS: THE TRIAL OF MIKE DIANA — Played July 14 — directed by Frank Henenlotter, USA

Frank Henenlotter, best known for independent horror films like BASKET CASE and BRAIN DAMAGE, turns out to be the right man for the job in telling the story of Mike Diana, a young cartoonist prosecuted (and convicted) for obscenity because of his doodles. He gets some bigger names on board — including Jello Biafra as narrator, and noted artists like Neil Gaiman to explain how censorship has affected them. Even George Romero appears in what may be his final interview (he does not look well). And, amazingly, Henenlotter tracked down practically everyone he could who was connected to the trial: the prosecutor, the defense attorney, protestors, the local news reporter. This is as full an evaluation of the case as could be done (and with some interviews filmed as far back as 2014, it has been in the works for a while).

Brilliantly, the case is put into its wider context rather than just presented as a “courtroom drama”. We see where Mike Diana fits in on the timeline from EC Comics, to “Seduction of the Innocent”, to R. Crumb and beyond. And we see how his art coincided with the Gainesville serial killings (making him a suspect!) which was a big part of why he drew the attention of law enforcement. Even the Internet comes into play, with the prosecutor (Stuart Baggish) acknowledging that obscenity is a shifting standard; he believes that arresting Diana was “the right thing”, but acknowledges in the Internet age the very same material could never be judged as obscene.

The ultimate irony of the trial is that while it may have temporarily stopped Diana from drawing, it catapulted him from a local unknown to a national (even international) figure. Before getting on the local news, he was publishing 300 copies of any given issue of his zine. After, reprints were selling by the thousands. Certainly it worked on me — I became aware of Diana and “Boiled Angel” around 1995 or 1996, and this never would have happened if he had not been convicted.

The documentary does run a tad bit long, but the biggest drawback is that, unfortunately, none of the members of the Diana family (including Mike) are terribly charismatic or eloquent. This makes his case no less interesting or important, but has the effect of making him less of a poster child than the comics industry would prefer. Score: B

RELAXER — Played July 14 — directed by Joel Potrykus, USA

With the impending Y2K apocalypse fast approaching, Abbie (Joshua Burge) is faced with the ultimate challenge – the unbeatable level 256 on Pac-Man – and he can’t get off the couch until he conquers it. A survival story set in a living room.

Joel Potrykus’ films are not for everyone. The characters are not always ones we can be sympathetic to, and some people may consider the films trashy or a waste of time. For me, however, they very much capture the 1990s indie vibe that Richard Linklater perfected in SLACKER. Lower budget, no big actors, but a strong script in a setting we can identify with (though hopefully none of us live in as much squalor as RELAXER). Linklater may have moved on to crating Oscar-worthy films, but we still have Potrykus. Hopefully we always will.

While ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK (2016) was a fine film in its own right, Potrykus’ masterpiece up to this point has been BUZZARD (2014). By bringing back his muse, Joshua Burge, RELAXER recaptures some of that magic from BUZZARD, and mixes it in with a healthy dose of 127 HOURS and just a sprinkling of SCANNERS. Sure, being stuck to a couch may not be as harrowing as being stuck in a mountain, but the dramatic response is doled out in equal measure. (Some press describes RELAXER as a modern interpretation of Luis Buñuel’s THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, but let’s not go that far!)

Much is done with very little budget, and location scouting must have been simple because we never even leave the room. We barely even change camera angles. If minimalist films are not for you, this is going to be a nightmare. But if you want that 90s indie vibe back, and especially if you grew up in the Midwest, I think this could be your next guilty pleasure. Score: A-

COLD SKIN — Played July 15 — directed by Xavier Gens, France/UK

In 1914, a young man (David Oakes) arrives at a remote island near the Antarctic Circle to take the post of weather observer only to find himself trapped in a watchtower besieged by deadly creatures (who resemble the aliens of FANTASTIC PLANET) which live in hiding on the island.

The popular line is that director Xavier Gens had a great film some years ago (2007’s FRONTIER(S)) and has been slipping, or at least fumbling, ever since. But in all fairness to Gens, it takes more than a great chef to make a meal — it takes the right ingredients. This time around, he found one of the best ingredients on the market with cinematographer Daniel Aranyó (REGRESSION). The color scheme manages to give the film the right look for the time period, as well as add to the isolation and desolation inherent in the environs.

The one thing keeping COLD SKIN from being a complete success is that the CGI is adequate, but not always great. In particular, there is a scene where numerous creatures are scaling a wall, and it looks as much like a cartoon as it probably can. To be fair, however, this could be blamed almost as much on my cynicism towards CGI; many of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have low-grade CGI and they’re still selling millions of tickets.

There is enough story here with just the creatures and the fight for survival, but a layer of depth is added when we find that the men at the lighthouse have had time to ponder philosophy, the world, and their place in it. We have thoughts on war (appropriately enough for a tale in 1914) and an opinion on just who the “enemy” of the story is. This is actually quite fascinating: on the surface, if monsters begin attacking two men on an island, we instinctively root for the men. But the point is raised: the monsters were there first; it is the men who were the invaders. This point is well-taken, and could be expounded upon… but let’s not get too political!

Because of the mixing of humans and fish-people, there will be the inevitable comparisons to THE SHAPE OF WATER. However, before anyone takes the similarity too far, let it be known the novel on which the film is based was published in 2002. And even the film itself was in development before SHAPE was released. So, yes, a comparison could be made, but the fact is that any similarity is pure coincidence. Score: B

DESTINY: THE TALE OF KAMAKURA — Played July 15 — directed by Takashi Yamazaki, Japan

Not only is Kamakura-based Masakazu Isshiki (Masato Sakai) a mystery novelist, but he is also a good detective himself. His wife Akiko (Mitsuki Takahata) and he are acquainted with all manners of creatures and gods, both good and evil.

This film is simply bursting with fantasy elements, countless creatures and even music reminiscent of the HARRY POTTER franchise. Although the story presented here is self-contained and wraps up smoothly, a whole series of films based on this world could be made. It is evident the creators spent just as much time thinking up who and what would populate the city as they spent on the narrative itself.

Though billed as a fantasy with mystery elements, or a mystery with fantasy elements, it is just as much a romance across multiple reincarnations. Masakazu and Akiko are not simply joined in the here and now, but for all eternity, which has cosmic consequences. The crux of the mystery is intricately tied to their union: who is the jealous one seeking to prevent their happiness?

Perhaps a familiarity with Japanese folklore would help a viewer, but it is not necessary. The demons Tentōki and Ryūtōki are central to the story, but my lack of knowledge did not hurt my ability to appreciate the film. A similar claim could be made for other Japanese entertainment as viewed by Americans. Take, for example, YO-KAI WATCH. The kappa (turtle demon) is a common character on the show. Do we need to know the kappa are often accused of assaulting humans in water and removing a mythical organ called the shirikodama from their victim’s anus? No.

My biggest concern for this film is that I think it would resonate more with children than adults (though it reached this old man just fine). And would American children watch a film with subtitles? I’m not sure. But if they would, this should move to the top of their list. Score: A

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