Tag Archives: Fantasia Film Festival

Free and Easy

To be honest, it took me a while to adapt to the pace of this movie. It is slow, deliberate, and very measured. There’s no getting ahead of yourself. But the unusual story and glimmers of humour hooked me and I was glad I stuck it out. Free and Easy is genuinely something that feels new and unique.

It’s about a “soap salesman” who never sells a single bar but does encourage people to sniff his product (“a different scent on all 4 sides!”) because doing so induces loss of consciousness. Once his would-be customers are asleep on the ground, he frisks them for money and valuables. So he’s really a thief, posing as a salesman.

1_22_free-and-easy1-676x450Director Geng Jun shows us a side of China rarely seen: crumbling, bleak, all but abandoned. This cold, deserted, post-industrial town in northeastern China is dotted with rural characters, and they’re all as shady as the salesman.

It almost watches like loosely connected vignettes, a series of petty crimes where corruption and lawlessness is the new normal. But whenever these criminals encounter each other, you can’t help but laugh. The humour is deadpan but it landed surprisingly well for a movie that runs the risk of being lost in translation. There’s some slap stick, which I suppose is universal, but really it’s just the contrast between this totally depressing setting and the buffoons that populate it that just works.

The film is minimalist but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of attention to detail poured into each shot. Out-of-focus details often sharpen into the butt of the joke. You have to stay alert to small gifts planted by the director along the way. Sure the subtext of the film is a little depressing, but it’s delivered in such an obliquely funny way, the message presented by sliding it in sideways, that you’ll laugh appreciatively at things that aren’t even overtly funny. In a film full of grifters, it’s the cops who are the dirtiest  of them all. That’s the lens through which contemporary, provincial China is explored in (ironically titled) Free and Easy, and the film stays remarkably on-brand.


Dead Shack

Dead Shack is that rare comedy-horror hybrid that actually works on both counts. It was yet another surprise from Fantasia’s lineup and I really have to stop being surprised because the truth is the programming is quite excellent even if the movies tend to do be a little wheelhouse-busting.

[I mean, what the hell is a wheelhouse anyway? Well, okay, I know what a wheel house is, it’s the little shack on a fishing boat where the wheel goes. If something’s in your wheel house, then you’re capable of doing it. And it’s not that I’m incompetent or unable MV5BZTgzODJjNDUtNGVhNC00NmUxLWJmYWUtMWU0ZTRiMGZmMzMxXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjEwNTM2Mzc@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,743_AL_to watch genre films, it’s just that I’m rather chicken and often shy away. But here I am, grabbing the ole wheel by its…spokes? And I’m loving it.]

Dead Shack is about a family who goes on a budget camping trip to a rundown cabin in the middle of some bug-infested hellhole, and if I stopped writing right there, well, that’s horrific enough for me. But no. While on the trip, Dad and Dad’s new girlfriend immediately set to partying (euphemism for heavy drinking). His teenage Son and Daughter and their Ambiguous Friend knock about in the creepy surrounding woods and stumble upon a neighbour who looks like a Volvo-driving soccer Mom until she puts her armor on and brings home human prey for her undead family to feast upon.

For a movie about cannibalism, it’s actually quite funny. A lot of the fun comes from Dad, who is earnest and geeky and trying just a little too hard to be Cool Weekend Dad. But then it’s his kids who have to come to the rescue with their improvised armaments and slapped-together weapons. Death Shack kind of has the feel of an 80s movie – picture a Goonies-Evil Dead mashup. And there’s still plenty of gore and tense framing and a pretty heart-pounding soundtrack to satisfy the sickest of you souls. Bon appetit.




The Honor Farm

Honor farm

I hadn’t seen my friend Josh in months and was eager to tell him all about the exciting new movie I saw at the Fantasia Film Festival. “I just saw The Honor Farm and I’m still trying to figure it out,” I told him while seated at a nearby Mexican restaurant.

I hadn’t seen the baby boomer somehow standing right over me until he chose this moment to cut me off. “I just saw that,” he complained. “It was terrible“.

I didn’t really want to get into it with this guy nor was I even confident that I had understood the film well enough to defend it so I just smiled politely as he told me that it wasn’t even scary. I bashfully admitted that I was the guy who jumped and cried out during the final act.

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The Honor Farm is exactly that kind of movie. It’s the kind of movie that you need to let sink in while you ignore those who will immediately and loudly dismiss it. Lucy (Olivia Grace Applegate) seems to feels like she’s just going through the motions as she prepares for her prom. After her drunk date embarasses her and tries to force himself on her, she reluctantly agrees to accompany her best friend Anne (Katie Folger) and a classmate she barely knows into the woods to take shrooms in an abandoned prison farm.

Other than that, the less you know about The Honor Farm the better. Although you should probably be warned that horror fans like the one described above may be disappointed. Because the set up seems bloody perfect. Eight teenagers, most of them seeming to fit a typical scary movie stereotype, entering a creepy prison on prom night might make you start placing bets on who will be first to die but this isn’t your typical scary movie. What follows is truly surreal and genre-bending and few of these character arcs play out like you’d expect.

I may have been a little lost during the closing credits but The Honor Farm keeps getting better the more i think about it. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

Poor Agnes

Men murder whores; women murder their babies. Where the fuck does that leave Agnes? Sure she’s a serial killer but she’s alarmingly adept not just at murder but at slow, meticulous torture. She surveys a therapy group that meets about their hostage experiences, and takes notes.

Her most recent victim is chained up in her basement right now. Mike (Robert Notman) is a private detective who ironically came asking after a former victim from a decade ago. Now he’s in chains, starving to death while she plays games with him. Agnes sees beauty in other people’s pain.

This movie is fucked up, totally, totally fucked up. But if you have the stomach for it, the writing is exceptionally good for this genre of film. Lora Burke, as Agnes, is perfectly cast. fantasia2017-Poor_AgnesAgnes is a psychopath but Burke never overplays her. She’s deeply disturbed but can come off perfectly sane and reasonable. Even more astonishing, she can say the most distressing things so pleasantly it takes a moment before your ears truly catch up to what they’re hearing.

Over time, Agnes and Mike form a bond that defies categorization. The film zings between victimization, sadism, cruelty, and remorselessness. Abu Ghraib’s got nothing on Agnes. She does abuse and mind-control like nobody’s business. But it’s not as brutal to watch as you might think; the one scene that made me GOL (gasp out loud) involved off-brand processed cheese, and believe me, that’s enough.

The most interesting thing about this movie is your reaction to it. Burke’s performance is so measured, it’s a struggle not to root for the bad guy. And she’s a very bad guy.



Detective Hisashi Sawamura (Shun Oguri) of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police is having a rough go. He’s tired. His overworking, long a point of contention in his marriage, has finally culminating in his wife and young son leaving him. And now he’s got a serial killer on his hands.

A few things about this serial killer, because he’s unlike anything you’ve seen in film GAGA_C&C_A4_frontbefore, and yet draws from many familiar sources. The serial killer only works in the rain. He plans elaborate, gruesome kills that seem to be some sort of punishment to his victims. And – how do I put this – he also appears to be a man with a frog head. There. I said it. Moving on…technically, the source material here is the manga, Museum: The Serial Killer Is Laughing In The Rain. But you’ll find the movie remind you of Seven, Saw, and maybe even Oldboy. I can’t say that Museum is that caliber of film, but it’s plenty bloody.

The first half works much better than the second does. Once the serial killer is “unmasked,” for lack of a better word, a lot of the fun and the sizzle leeched out of the movie for me.  I worried that the frog head would seem cartoonish and silly but I did find it rather sinister and regretted it when we lost it. Some of the acting, though, veered toward cartoonish, and that’s particularly hard on North American audiences who are more used to subtlety.

Still, the Assholes managed to enjoy this one, more or less. It has a frenetic energy to it thanks to manic editing. And if you just give in to the weirdness, the slight foreignness, it’s a little fun to watch the whole thing go down. Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival focuses on “genre” selections, which means you always get something special. We get exposed to titles we’d otherwise struggle to find, and it’s honestly a lot of fun to be pushed out of our comfort zone once in a while.

A Ghost Story

ghost-storyFilm as a medium is almost infinitely flexible, universal and personal at the same time. Film is capable of so much emotion and yet it’s also capable of conveying the complete absence of it. Beauty or lack of it.  Terror or peace. And, as A Ghost Story proves beyond any doubt, film can make you feel so fucking uncomfortable and voyeuristic that you would give anything for the director to just yell “cut” already!

Put another way: how long do you think you could bear watching someone eat pie? Think carefully before you answer. For the full A Ghost Story experience, write your response down on a little scrap of paper and hide it in your house (or underneath a rock if your house is just a couple of pegs in the ground).

Whatever you think you can bear now, the inescapable truth is that no amount of tolerance for pie voyeurism will be enough to survive A Ghost Story unscathed. In one strange, haunting scene, A Ghost Story makes its mark, and there are lifetimes of other achingly lonely scenes for you to digest (but only if you can stomach it).

A Ghost Story plods, skips, stops, philosophizes, winks, and does whatever it wants, conventions be damned. It is a wonderfully strange, unique and brilliant experience that I cannot recommend enough.

By the way, see A Ghost Story in a theatre if you can, because there is a magical dichotomy in the mixture of loneliness and comradery that should result from experiencing this film with others. That contrast is yet another example of film’s versatility, and doubles as a valuable touchstone if you ever happen to become a ghost. It will all make sense in the end, and that is a comforting thought, isn’t it?



Kidnap Capital

Phoenix, Arizona is the kidnap capital of the world; as many as 1000 drop houses in the city are hiding kidnapped illegal immigrants from Central America. This movie is the story of one such house.

A dirty, dark room houses a bunch of underwear-clad men. Some have been there a long time, some are new. All are grimy, desperate, and scared. All are being held for $2800 ransom, which none have. Most have already spent their life savings to get this far – to America, land of the free. Land of kidnappers preying on the vulnerable. Land of guns, (KIDNAP CAPITAL) - Publicity still 4.jpgterror, and violence. Although they’ve dreamt their whole lives of a better life in America, most just want to go home. A few have nothing to go back to. Manolo, newly arrived, is mostly concerned for his wife.

The women have been contained elsewhere, maybe not being held for money, but held for other reasons – the kind of reasons that give husbands nightmares. So if money isn’t going to solve their problems (and they don’t have any anyway), looks like the only way to survive is by fighting, easier said than done when the captors are armed and motivated gangsters.

Writer-director Felipe Rodriguez gives us suspense and agony in Kidnap Capital. It’s gripping and heartbreaking and takes place almost entirely in one suburban home. I would have liked to have seen more of the outside world, not because the interior isn’t enough (I actually think the sense of claustrophobia is brilliant), but because this whole thing is KidnapCapital_FeatImage@2x.pnggoing down in a nice, friendly neighbourhood just like yours. Like mine. And it takes an awful lot of looking the other way by an awful lot of neighbours, cops, friends and family, for a kidnap ring like this to work. And this is going on TIMES A THOUSAND in Phoenix. So that’s a lot of selective blindness by a lot of “good people.” And that made me so sad.

Immigration isn’t an easy issue, but I have tonnes of sympathy for people whose lives are so wretched that they sacrifice and risk everything for the chance at a better life. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know they don’t deserve this. And this is real. It could be happening in your neighbour’s basement right now. With Sicario and Desierto and now this, movies are giving voice to a forgotten, helpless people. Human trafficking isn’t just a movie plot, which is why this one’s going to stick with me for a good long time.

Let Me Make You A Martyr

Drew (Niko Nicotera) narrates his story from inside a police interrogation room: he has recently returned home after being away for quite some time. He inevitably crosses paths with his adopted father, local crime magnate Larry Glass (Mark Boone Jr) and his adopted sister June (Sam Quartin). Larry is a scary dude but June is quite fetching despite some of her more unnamedtroubling habits, so incest be damned, these two are hooking up. To escape their complicated past (and perhaps outrun some judgmental laws against incest), they decide to run away, but have to kill Daddy first, which just makes sense. I mean, why not christen the new romance with your sister by plotting to revenge-kill your abusive father? The ONE advantage of having sex with your sister is that you only have to kill one dad! They vastly underestimate Larry though – he gets wind of their half-baked plan and hires his own hit man (Marilyn Manson)  to “solve the conflict.”

I really enjoy Mark Boone Junior and I feel magnetically drawn to him every time he’s on the screen. Nicotera isn’t bad either. Drew isn’t exactly a sympathetic character, but you can understand where he’s coming from. Larry is just plain sinister. June is harder to crack: both strong and fragile at the same time. Quartin and Nicotera volley off each other quite nicely.

makemeamartyr3And then there’s Marilyn Manson playing an enigmatic hermit hit man. You have to hand it to him, nobody creeps and lurks and skulks quite like him. His performance is restrained, his stillness and silence somehow more menacing than outright aggression could ever be. He’s an unknown quantity, used sparingly by the script, so you always feel off-kilter when he’s around.

The story turns out to be a little more complex than you first think, the script hiding some family secrets to be unearthed along the way. The patient shall be rewarded. Let Me Make You A Martyr unspools itself slowly, but there’s a spartan method to it that you come to appreciate.


Neil, a shy 15 year-old who is questioning his sexuality, has trouble connecting with his classmates until he meets Julia an out-spoken and rebellious 16 year-old. They may not seem to have much in common at first glance but they bond over their love of writing slash-fiction.


Don’t worry if you don’t know what slash-fiction is, neither did I. Slash-fiction is basically like any online erotic fiction except it features characters from pre-established sci-fi or fantasy who would ordinarily not be naked together. Ever wondered what it would be like if Dumbledore and Gandalf had wizard sex? Someone’s thought about it, someone’s written about it, and that’s slash.

Neil’s got some real talent, although his limited life experience makes it hard for him to write sex convincingly, but he lacks the confidence to post it online. Julia, who’s already posted 38 raunchy stories about an elf named Fain, happens to accidentally get a peek at his work and sees potential. Mostly though, she believes that real writers want their work to be seen. So she encourages/pressures him to publish his stories as the two develop an unlikely friendship and a complicated mutual attraction. Hoping to participate in a live read for slash-fiction writers, they journey to ComicCon on a mission to sneak into the Adults Only event.

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I can’t endorse this well-intentioned indie as much as I’d like to. Quirkiness seems inevitable in a story like this but writer-director Clay Liford does his best to keep it grounded and believable. It’s a delicate balance that I’m not sure he ever got quite right. And, elf sex and space orgies aside, Slash doesn’t bring much new to the story of a lonely teenager coming of age.

That being said, I’d rather focus on what works. Lirod wisely resists the temptation to judge or mock a subculture that could have easily made easy targets. By respecting his characters, he gives them room to grow and, in most cases, doesn’t let a single trait define them. Mostly, it comes down to the casting. Michael Johnston, as Neil, seems a little one-note at first but grows on you, especially in his scenes with Julia. As Julia, Hannah Marks is quite a find. Her quick wit and outer confidence mask Julia’s hidden insecurities. She reminded me of a young Mary Elizabeth Wintead.

Slash isn’t the next Juno but if you are curious about sci-fi porn and wonder about the people who write it, you might find yourself charmed by this little film.

The Unseen

A mother calls a father, concerned. Teen-aged daughter Eva is acting strange: grades suck, dropping out of sports, hanging out instead of applying to college. Bob hasn’t seen her in a while but sends checks. His ex-wife Darlene (Camille Sullivan) thinks it’s time he re-involves himself.

It sounds like the makings of a family drama, but wait: a flicker. Of something strange. unseen_(4)Mysterious. Maybe a little…creepy? In an unguarded moment Bob (Aden Young) shows us his secret. Under layers of clothes and bandages, his flesh is disappearing.

In this modern retelling of The Invisible Man, it’s clear that Bob is suffering –  the physical pain leaving an ugly grimace on his face, the mental anguish evident in his isolated, tattered little life. His body’s disintegration mimics that of his family. Both  leave him feeling raw. But when his daughter Eva (Julia Sarah Stone) goes missing, Bob will do anything to find her, even it means partnering with criminals to finance the trip, even if it means exposing the closely-guarded secret of his descent into invisibility.

This is writer-director Geoff Redknap’s first feature film, but if anyone can handle this gritty horror thriller, it’s him. He’s best known for his special makeup effects work onunseen2 TV’s The X-Files, The Flash, and Fear The Walking Dead, and in movies like Watchmen, Deadpool, Warcraft, and the upcoming Star Trek Beyond, but that’s just a fraction of his IMDB credits. The list is so long and impressive that you might wonder where he found the time to make this move into writing and directing, but it’s clear that movies are his passion.

The Unseen is a tensely edited thriller with a sci-fi medical twist. Redknap’s makeup FX background puts the horror back into horrific; Bob’s wounds are bloody disgusting, almost gleefully so. But this movie doesn’t coast on gore alone – in fact, it’s got a solid story, is compellingly shot by cinematographer Stephen Maier, and is well-acted by the gruff Young. You don’t often see a debut feature so self-assured but Redknap’s arrival as both writer and director make it certain that this may be his first, but it won’t be his last.