Tag Archives: Fantasia Film Festival

Astronaut

Becoming an astronaut was always a dream of mine.  As early as I can remember, I was fascinated by the idea that there were other planets and stars surrounding us, and the idea that I could float around in outer space and jump so much higher and further on the moon than on Earth.  At the time I lived in Kentucky and learned at school that I could write to NASA and they would send back random photos of space shuttles, planets, satellites, and so much more.  So write I did.  I wrote almost as many letters then as Jay does now (she is singlehandedly keeping Canada Post’s lettercarriers employed), and ended up with stacks of photos that I treasured throughout my childhood.

AstronautObviously, I am not the only one who dreamed of becoming an astronaut.  Space travel is clearly on a lot of people’s bucket lists, as shown by the proposed reality show cataloguing a one-way mission to Mars (which went belly-up earlier this year), the numerous space flights available for purchase (Virgin Galactic has collected $80 million in deposits for 90 minute voyages costing $250,000 each), and NSYNC’s Lance Bass attempting to buy his way onto a Russian rocket (he couldn’t afford it after Justin Timberlake left the band), among other examples.

In Astronaut, Angus (Richard Dreyfuss) definitely has space travel on his bucket list.  He’s always looking to the stars and, as a retired civil engineer, possesses the type of scientific knowledge that might grant a seat on a NASA mission.  Unfortunately, he never secured a NASA spot during his career and his dreams of space travel seem more and more distant as his health begins to fail.   But the stars align when a billionaire (Colm Feore) announces a contest that will give the winner a seat on the first commercial flight to space, which otherwise would be too expensive for Angus (and the rest of the 99%) to afford.  You can probably guess who becomes one of the twelve finalists in that lottery, but even with that stroke of luck things don’t come easy to Angus, not only because of the health issues I mentioned, but also because he’s trying to settle his wife’s estate and he’s struggling with an impending move to a retirement home.

Astronaut asks us to suspend our disbelief on more than one occasion, and in exchange rewards us with a sweet and engaging fairy tale.  The pieces fit together so neatly and conveniently that there is never any real tension or possibility of failure, but the movie works even with relatively low stakes because of Dreyfuss’ stellar performance.  Angus is a great combination of gruff and personable, and Astronaut is elevated by Dreyfuss’ wonderful chemistry with Angus’ family and friends, particularly his daughter (Krista Bridges), his son-in-law (Lyriq Bent), and his grandson (Richie Lawrence).

Writer-director Shelagh McLeod wisely focuses on Angus’ personal relationships rather than the space flight itself and Astronaut is better for it, because the fantastical (and potentially unbelievable) elements of the film are just minor details.  What matters is watching Angus reach for the stars, and I happily cheered him on from start to finish.

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Hit-And-Run Squad

Korea is a machine. Honestly, I can’t help but admire the country’s dedication to arts and culture. Decades ago, the government assessed their economic standing and realized that they were vulnerable. If just one of its leading industries failed, it would take down the whole country with it. So they diversified in a way that few if any countries ever has: they pumped tonnes and tonnes of money into developing culture – music, television, movies, and video games. South Korea has a population of just over 50 million, but chances are you’ve heard of their boy band invasion (BTS!), you’ve played their games (they’ve mostly developed computer gaming, like Overwatch and League of Legends), and you’ve seen some of their cinema’s best (Bong Joon-ho’s The Host or Snowpiercer or Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, for example). And this is despite the fact that most of us don’t speak Korean! American audiences have been notoriously difficult to penetrate with foreign languages. They hate subtitles and expect to be able to sing along to everything on the radio. But that’s changing, perhaps in part due to greater inclusivity and appreciation for other cultures, but mostly because the Korean machine is just so damn irrepressible.

That said, it feels like Korea might be poised to take over the world, and I might worry about that a bit if not for this: if the lung cancer doesn’t get them, the misogyny will. According to actual statistics, only about 40% of Korean men smoke (which is objectively pretty high), but in cinema, it’s nearly 100%. But misogyny is definitely 100%. And here’s the weird thing that I’ve been twisting around in my mind. America has a comparable rate of misogyny, it’s just that over here, we have this pretense that abuse should be closeted. We know it happens. If it happens behind closed doors, we can all look away and pretend otherwise. It’s embarrassing when it goes public because then we have to pretend to care. Not actually care. No nonnononono. The justice system makes that clear: we will not intervene until he kills her. Then we will be angry: boo! We’ll put him in magazines and make movies about him, and if he’s handsome then we’ll REALLY shake our heads. But as long as he keeps it quiet and private, we’ll let that shit happen for years. And even if it becomes public, we’re still often sympathetic, and might even vilify the women, for good measure. Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen, Josh Brolin, Johnny Depp, Alec Baldwin, Michael Fassbender, and Christian Bale have all been accused of domestic violence, and we’ve seemingly given them a pass. In South Korean movies, however, violence against women is a little more upfront. The men are not afraid to toss around a woman like they might toss around any man in a common barfight, or even beat a subordinate who hasn’t done her job well. It’s a lot of equal opportunity violence, whereas over here, we “pride” ourselves on only hurting our wives and girlfriends and daughters in the privacy of our homes. Is that fucked up or what?

Anyway, to the movie. Hit and Run Squad will be a little difficult to summarize, but here’s my lame attempt. Officer Eun Shi-Yeon (Hyo-jin Kong) is investigating government corruption – particularly a case in which a very successful Formula 1 driver, Jung (Jung-suk Jo), is paying off the police commissioner. Tricky. But that investigation gets botched and Officer Eun gets demoted to the hit-and-run squad, where she’s teamed with Seo Min-Jae (Jun-yeol Ryu), an unambitious, spacey looking dude who just happens to be the Sherlock Holmes of hit and runs. And the hit and run squad just happens to also be looking at Jung for an ‘accident’ possibly involving one of his cars.

One thing is abundantly clear: Jung is a very bad dude. But he’s also nearly untouchable. But Eun is persistent and Seo is motivated in his own way; it also turns out that he’s got an interesting past that might start to bleed into the present, with both positive and negative repercussions.

Hit-And-Run Squad is a police procedural, but Korean dramas tend to have it all: comedy, romance, melodrama, highs and lows. South Korea’s primary television export tends to be their soap operas, and a lot of their films feel touched by a telenovela. At one point, this movie was scored overdramatically by a jazzy saxophone accompanied by insistent snapping, and it felt very much Too Much, but you have to look past these foibles in Korean cinema, because it’s not quite how we like to do things here, but if we kept ourselves in the tiny box of American cinema, we’d never have any fun.

The cinematography is pretty great, the car chases feel urgent and dangerous, and it’s fun to see them take place literally anywhere but Atlanta once in a while. The acting was quite good too, or at least the actors were adept at working with what they’re given. While it’s nice to see a female lead, and Officer Eun is undoubtedly the film’s lead and the audience placeholder, she’s the least compelling character, having been given no back story and very little development. She’s overshadowed not just by Jung and Seo, but by a couple of even lesser male protagonists as well. There’s a trio of important women in the film but they’re extremely one-dimensional and depressingly primitively drawn.

Of course, if you’re here for hot cars and top speeds, you likely won’t care that a female officer is reprimanded at work by blows to the head until she bleeds, and that her ability to bleed is one of the few things we know about her. Heck, you might even be into jazzy sax, in which case, more power to you.

Fantasia Film Festival Wrap Up

Cinderella The Cat

Um.

Where to start. This is an animated film, but do not let that that mistake you into thinking this is benign in anyway.  Mia, the “Cinderella” in question, was a little girl aboard a ship of dreams, a ship her father was going to turn into some wildly successful, hologram heavy, extremely technologically advanced…something. MV5BMjMyNTFkYzEtNmI3Mi00MGVkLTkyYTgtMTJhN2Q1MzQzMjgyXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTMxODk2OTU@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,666,1000_AL_Cruiseship? Tourist destination? Curiosity? Lab? Impossible to say because it never happens. Instead her father gets tricked into marrying an evil woman, a woman who has schemed with her evil boyfriend to steal Mia’s dad’s fortune by murdering him on their wedding day, directly after the vows. And they do. And then they for some reason have to wait 12 long years until Mia comes of age and inherits her fortune, which they’re certain she’ll sign over to them. Which makes no sense because for 12 years, Mia’s evil stepmother and her 6 evil stepsisters force her to be their maid as they all live aboard the crumbling ghost of the ship. They hate her for sure and the feeling is mutual but in this case I can’t help but think that the maid fate is actually quite lucky – stepmother forces her own daughters into prostitution.

Anyway, it’s an ugly, sordid tale that I didn’t enjoy. There were no glass slippers, though there are shoes used for drug trafficking. Did you always secretly want your Cinderella with a side of tits and guns and racial slurs? Boy have I got an Italian film for you.

Ajin: Demi Human

An Ajin is a demi-human, as in a human who comes back to life after death. Immediately. 46 are known to exist worldwide, but more are likely in hiding, because their fates are undesirable. These ‘immortals’ are being captured in Japan, by their own government, for sadistic testing. Alive while their limbs are systematically amputated, for example, they are tortured day in and day out until MV5BMzIwYzFiNWItZTM0OC00ZDE0LWE4MTktMTkxY2M2NDRmZjM4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDQxNjcxNQ@@._V1_they succumb. And then they live to do it again.

When demi-human Kei Nagai is sprung from such a lab by another Ajin and former captive, he’s only relieved for a few minutes before realizing that his saviour is going to ask something in return. Something big. But the movie doesn’t dwell on complicated facts or feelings or characters or situations. It’s time for violence! Stunning, beautifully-choreographed violence, which includes a nifty (and probably unnecessary) Ajin perk: a ghost monster who comes out of them and fights alongside them – there’s something familiar about it, maybe not quite Transformery or Pacific Rimy, because it’s smaller scale, but still. The fight scenes are crazy. And the director knows that’s all you came for, so dispenses of all the details.

 

 

Kasane – Beauty & Fate

Kasane is a young, talented woman prevented from pursuing the “family business” – she, like her mother, is a fabulous actress, but she’s held back by a prominent scar on her face. But when her mother dies, she leaves Kasane a magical tube of lipstick – one that, when conveyed through a kiss, allows her to swap faces with the kiss recipient for 12 hours. So you can bet your Mac and Sephora that Kasane finds herself an attractive but middling actress named Nina and literally kisses her face off.

I had some problems with this movie, namely, the blatantly sexist stuff. Like, there’s no reason that this magic has to be transmitted via kiss except the director clearly likes to linger over whatever lesbian\girl-on-girl situations he’s orchestrated.

I think the premise has potential, but right off the bat I bet you can recognize some challenges and when the script runs into them,  it’s like running into a brick wall. I wish MV5BOTdhOGY1MmQtNzQwZC00NTBiLWI2ZjEtNTdkZjIyZTM1ZjhjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDQxNjcxNQ@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,707,1000_AL_some script writer would have made even a half-assed attempt at circumventing the obvious pitfalls, but no, Kasane runs into them face first, and the camera caresses her smudged lipstick. I mean, you can understand what Kasane (Kyoko Yoshine) gets out of the equation – but Nina (Tao Tsuchiya)? What can she possible stand to benefit?

And, okay, let’s address the scar – a significant one covering half her face. I won’t pretend it’s easy to be so marked, but I can’t forgive this movie for constantly reinforcing that scar = ugly. In fact, the older I get, the less I see ugliness, period. And I can’t really fathom why we’d ever need to use that word. But this girl, though clearly paranoid about her scarring, is not ugly. But if you’ll allow me for just one moment to pull back the curtain a little, let’s say for the sake of argument that she is ugly. Isn’t the lipstick a little cruel? Wouldn’t things have worked out better if it was a magical tube of cover up? A nice thick foundation with a side of pancake pressed powder? Julia Roberts has at least four tattoos that we know about, but have you ever seen them? No. Because makeup. Makeup IS magic. I have a tube of Christian Louboutin red lip stick that cost a car payment, but it’s worth it because it makes me feel like TWO car payments. But you know what? Makeup is fun because colour is necessary but changing yourself is not. Scars are just a reminder that you survived. And it feels awful to be complicit in this movie’s messaging, because scars don’t make you ugly, but being shallow and superficial does. Which is not to say it would be easy for a young woman to confront our looks-obsessed world with a scar that looks so angry and cruel, but there has to be some middle ground between total isolation and stealing someone’s face.

This movie claims to challenge our notions of beauty and superficiality but I felt it did the opposite. It’s adapted from a popular manga but I’m unfamiliar with its source material and I wonder if I would feel differently if I knew it. For me, parts of this movie felt uncomfortably fetishistic, and though I tried to take it light-heartedly, and just enjoy the twisted nature of the film, I couldn’t quite buy into it, nor did I want to.

 

Searching

Searching Pie

1999. It was the summer that I graduated high school, started preparing for CEGEP, and took my first trip across the country without the parental units. If ever there was a summer that felt like I had my whole life ahead of me, that was the one and- even though it was that same summer that I saw The Goddamn Matrix for the first time, the movie that really brings me back to that feeling- the movie that I saw four times- was American Pie.

Looking back on that scene where three teens repeatedly scream “MILF” at a picture of Stiffler’s Mom, I’d call it misogynist. But 19 years ago, that didn’t stop my friends and I from laughing our asses off. And to this day (and I’m sure this would make him so happy) I can’t look at John Cho without thinking of “MILF’ Guy #2. (Wait, who was “MILF” Guy #1 then?).

It’s almost depressing to think about how long ago that was. Times have changed and a lot of those changes are good. Jason Biggs doesn’t have to watch scrambled porn anymore and Cho can find work without having to lick a framed photo of Jennifer Coolidge. And I’m proud that my sense of humour has gotten a little more sophisticated and hopefully a lot less sexist. Still, I don’t know many people who love thinking about how many years have passed since high school while they weren’t looking and in his new movie John Cho is back to remind me of just how old I’ve gotten by playing the father of a 16 year-old girl.

Searching 1

That Cho is now old and mature enough to carry a tense thriller about a father’s desperate search for his missing teenage daughter isn’t even the most obvious way that Searching reminds us of what a strange and different world we’re now living in. First-time director Aneesh Chaganty shot the entire movie from the point of view of a mock computer screen. So as Cho’s David Kim talks to his daughter’s friends and searches for clues on her laptop, the whole story is told through Google searches, text history, Facebook posts, Skype, and YouTube videos.

Searching 2

My first response to Chaganty’s experimental approach during the first few minutes of Searching was “Alright. I’m impressed so far and am on board for now but can easily see how this can get old pretty quickly”. It’s a testament to Chaganty’s storytelling that the novelty never wears off and is rarely distracting. It’s not a perfect film. I’m not sure all of the laughs it got at my Fantasia screening were entirely intentional and as a thriller one or two of the twists may be a little too far-fetched.

Not all of the changes since 1999 are great and Searching is at its best as an exploration of what a double-edged sword the internet can be. It shows how it can make it easier both to reach out and to retreat into our. How easy it is both to reveal and conceal our true selves. And, most importantly, how useful a tool the internet is for concerned parents and stalkers alike.

Despite its flaws, Searching is a much more gripping and emotionally satisfying experience than you’re probably imagining and Cho nails what I can only imagine must have been a challenging role. I highly recommend it.

The Vanished

When director Chang-hee Lee saw Oriol Paulo’s 2012 film, The Body, he enjoyed it, but he also saw how he would make it differently, and perhaps more importantly, how he could inject it with some Korean spice. Chang-hee Lee introduces the film to us at Fantasia Film Festival, and appears overwhelmed to have traveled all this way for his first feature film, awed at the reception, abashed at the applause. After greeting us in French (garnering immediate rock star status), he reassures us that this is not so much a horror film as a thriller, and so of course the opening scene causes me to pee just a teeny, tiny, barely perceptible bit. It was hella scary.

OF COURSE it’s scary: a night security guard goes down to the basement DURING A BLACKOUT on a rainy night BY HIMSELF armed with only a flashlight TO A MORGUE where he sees – what? a woman? a body? a ghost? We don’t know, because someone (or something) shadowy gives him a crack on the head, and when the police arrive it’s night really the security guard who grabs their attention, but the empty drawer in the morgue.

Yoon Seol Hee, newly dead, formerly a young, successful CEO, has gone missing. Well, her corpse has. Bad-boy detective Woo Joong Shik is on the case, and he’s cynical as hell and casts an accusatory eye at her “trophy husband”, Park Jin Han, although he’s more concerned with murder than mere body snatching. Of course, since Park and Yoon run MV5BOTk0ZDAzOTMtMTg3NS00Y2Y3LWI4ZDYtNjE2MGU3NTRkNTc4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzI1NzMxNzM@._V1_with an elite crowd, the higher ups are cautioning Detective Woo to back off – but he’s much too much a loose canon to respect authority, isn’t he? You know he is. Meanwhile, if Park is looking inadequately grief stricken, he’s overly concerned about his wife’s missing body. And pretty soon he’s frantically claiming that she’s responsible for her own disappearance, and is somehow still alive.

The cool thing about this movie is that it takes place over the course of just one night, which gives it a real sense of urgency. Movie detectives are often of this variety, the old “renegade cop” trope, the guy who plays by his own rules. He’s tough, a bit of a cowboy, a definite anti-hero, often with a side of alcoholism or anger (mis)management. But there’s something about seeing this Detective among his much more restrained, polite, effacing, perhaps more stereotypically Korean colleagues that’s intriguing and fresh. No one quite knows what to make of him, and he definitely shakes up the investigation.

Even if you’ve seen the original Spanish version, you’ll still get a kick out of The Vanished; the Korean setting of course makes for quite a change, but circumstances and even outcomes have been rearranged as well, for your viewing pleasure. And to be honest, it was quite a pleasure. I can’t believe this is a first feature for the director. It looks slick and cool and there are lots of visual details to admire, we get a sense of his style and aesthetic and the whole thing just glows. The cinematography is beautiful. As I mentioned, this film takes place over the course of a night, so DP Lee Jong-youl coats it in a cold blue wash that lends just a touch of creepiness to an already creepy scenario. But in flashbacks he floods us with warm, natural lighting, which is a bit cruel actually – it gives us a false sense of comfort when really we should never let our guard down.

The thing about The Vanished is, it’s a very compelling puzzle. And even if you’re very clever and you manage to slot all the moving pieces into just the right places, you’ll find it’s one of those trick puzzles that only look complete – actually it just unlocks like 3 more puzzles to solve! The veteran cast (Kang-woo Kim, Hee-ae Kim, and Sang-Kyung Kim as the rumpled Detective) close ranks and draw us in with their institutional politeness – but something stinks in this morgue, and it’s certainly not the dead body. Because, you know, it’s missing. And maybe not even dead.

Cam

Mostly, we’re very lucky to travel the world, attend film festivals, and see great movies eons before any of you jerks. But, to be honest, there are a few downsides. Popcorn isn’t a food group. It’s hard to take notes in the dark. There’s only so many times you can sincerely shake Matt Damon’s hand and say “Pleased to meet you.” But worst of all: sometimes you see a really great, or really interesting, or really controversial film and all you want, in fact NEED, to do is talk about it with fellow film fanatics but you can’t because literally no one else has seen it yet. I remember seeing La La Land at TIFF, my eyes stinging as I went from my dark corner of the theatre to broad daylight, sobbing as I walked through downtown Toronto to my next film, and walking straight into Arrival. Back to back massive, amazing films that I needed to discuss and debrief – but with whom? And then I saw Jackie and Lion and Loving and The Lobster, 4 or 5 movies a day for 10 days, at the end of which, I’m punch drunk. And then I have to sit on all this movie madness for anywhere from 3 months (lots of Oscar contenders are aiming for Christmas releases) to 3+ years (if the festival fails to bring in offers for distribution). Thank goodness I drink; if my memory were any better, I’d probably be fucked.

Cam is one of those movies that I’m dying to talk about, and it proves that a press pass is a nice thing, but 17 press passes for my 17 friends would be much nicer. Of course, I MV5BNjI1MTQ2YWEtYmE0OS00NzJkLWFhMDgtNmM3OTJkYzFlZDYwXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyODc4ODY5Mzc@._V1_SX1776_CR0,0,1776,998_AL_come home and stare at this white, white screen, trying to distill my thoughts, keep them straight, not confuse them with any of the other 32 trillion movies I’ve seen, and find a way to sort of talk about them with all of you. And that’s possibly the hardest part for me because I’m a bit of blabber mouth but a review is not about telling, it’s about hinting, hinting just enough so that you have an idea whether you should see it or skip it or read some other, more cohesive review that doesn’t waste 400 words complaining about having seen a terrific film.

I buried the lead there. Surprise: Cam is a terrific film!

I’m so glad I got that off my chest. I was playing it so cool during that first paragraph, trying to distract us both with all my reminiscing (I’m pretty sure those are my  memories anyway – of course, I wouldn’t swear to it. Not on my mother’s life. Not even on yours – no offense, of course, but I don’t even know the lady).

Cam is about a sex worker named Alice – though her fans know her as Lola. She’s a cam girl. She works for a website where men can live-stream women for “free” – although getting her to do pretty much anything requires a lot of “tipping.” Lola is quite popular. She’s able to maintain relationships with several men outside the chatroom – not in the real world per say, but in other digital venues, where they’re encouraged to spend more money, and even send gifts, for a more personalized show. Alice (Madeline Brewer) is a surprisingly ambitious sex worker, and she’s smart too. She pushes her shows to the limit, choreographing, staging, and even faking gruesome suicide scenes which her horny, horrible customers seem to gobble up. Alice has her eye on the top: she wants to be the #1 camgirl. But that pride in her work only extends so far – her mother don’t know shit about how Alice pays her rent. She keeps her two lives separate and firmly on lockdown – and that works, until it doesn’t.

One day she finds herself locked out of her account, and stranger still, someone else is using it. Well, not someone else. It’s still her. It’s just not her her. Who is this impostor? How is this sneaky, thieving lookalike even possible?

Cam descends into this pulsating vortex where we must question everything. What is digital identity? At this point, is it even separate from our “offline” identity? How valuable is it? How do we prove it? How do we safeguard it?

Alice is a many-flavoured protagonist, and Madeline Brewer will FREAK YOU THE FUCK OUT. Damn she’s good in this, in a can’t-watch, must-watch kind of way. Fierce and fearless, she’ll turn you on, she’ll mess you up, she’ll  haunt your dreams.

Cam is a smart, timely movie about sex work, but it’s also this swirling, confounding, complicated piece of cinema that manages to look stylish and cool even as it challenges some pretty core notions. I like its subversive nature, how it pokes the bear in sly and cool ways, how it opened me up to an underground world I’ve never really seen before. I was “lucky” enough to be in the audience for its world premiere at Fantasia Film Festival, but I won’t be truly happy until you’ve all been infected with it also, so I can finally dissect it the meaty, enthusiastic way it deserves.