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Fantasia 2021, Part XXVIII: Indemnity

Fantasia 2021, Part XXVIII: Indemnity

One of the more chilling films I saw at the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival was “Please Hold,” a 19-minute short film directed by KD Dávila and co-written by Dávila with Levin Menekse. It’s not chilling in the way of a horror film, but of well-done near-future science fiction. In a North American city not too far away from now, a drone arrests a guy, Mateo (Erick Lopez), on his way to work. Mateo hasn’t done anything, but he can’t argue with the drone. He’s stuck in a cell with a computer screen, and has to try to navigate unhelpful menus just to place a phone call and find a lawyer and find out what the hell he’s doing in jail in the first place.

The film manages to find ways to make a story that’s basically a man interacting with a screen visually interesting. But the cleverness of the script is really what makes the story work. Mateo has to struggle with a system that’s clearly not designed with justice in mind, but with extracting money from anyone unlucky enough to get caught up in it. Unreadable terms and conditions scroll past as he tries to figure out what’s going on. The system forces him to labour in order to have a prayer of getting anywhere. The movie’s in all an extremely sharp look at the way various technologies are converging with the noxious for-profit prison system to create a new kind of hell, and it’s well worth watching.

Bundled with the short was Indemnity, a South African action-thriller. South Africa’s been developing quite a genre film culture in recent years — beyond science-fiction like District 9, consider previous Fantasia offerings like Five Fingers For Marseilles and 8, to say nothing of Fried Barry. So I was looking forward to seeing what this movie brought. If it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, at least it satisfies expectations in the way you want from a good honest genre tale.

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Goth Chick News: I Finally Made It to the Stanley Hotel, and It Was Perfect

Goth Chick News: I Finally Made It to the Stanley Hotel, and It Was Perfect

The Stanley Hotel

Personally, I have two bucket lists. One is filled with experiences that sound familiar like “learn a new language” or “ride in a helicopter.” The other is my goth bucket list, filled with things that cause my parents to ask, “why can’t you just go to Vegas like a normal person?” Quite high on this particular list was a visit to the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, CO. I say “was” because due to attending a wedding in Boulder, I was less than an hour away. That meant a gracious “no” to the invitation to a ladies brunch the day after the nuptials, and a great big “yes” to a giddy 55-mile drive.

Stephen King’s book The Shining is one of my favorites, and the Stanley Hotel was King’s inspiration. That much I knew, but exactly how much of an inspiration I was about to find out. To clarify one thing, the Stanley has no connection at all to Kubrick’s film. The hotel which represented the exterior shots of The Overlook Hotel in the movie, is actually the Timberline Lodge in Oregon. All the interior shots were filmed at Elstree Studios in Borehamwood, outside London.

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Fantasia 2021, Part XXVII: What Josiah Saw

Fantasia 2021, Part XXVII: What Josiah Saw

“The Gloom” (“La Penumbra”) is a 14-minute short from Spain’s Dani Viqueira, written by Luis Sánchez-Polack. It follows a young family with a mother, Laura (Lorena Hidalgo), who is in the middle of intense studies to earn her medical degree, potentially useful as her husband Joaquin is a hypochondriac. After a car ride marked by the squabbling of their children Tomás (Jaime P. Barahona) and Rosa (Lucía Hidalgo), Laura is menaced by what appears to be the incursion of the supernatural into the family home. But more may be happening here than meets the eye. In fact the ending’s fairly simple but emotionally effective, especially as it follows an atmospheric and involving horror sequence. The movie’s a very solid piece of work.

Bundled with it was the American feature What Josiah Saw. Directed by Vincent Grashaw and written by first-time screenwriter Robert Alan Dilts, it follows the family of one Josiah Graham (Robert Patrick, the T-1000 himself). Josiah’s three kids are adults now, in their 30s or thereabouts, and they’ve taken different paths in life. The movie opens somewhere in the southwestern US, with oil men talking about buying the Graham homestead; we then follow the youngest child, Thomas (Scott Haze), living on the old family property, overseen by the patriarchal Josiah. This first act establishes an uncomfortable, horrific atmosphere with some notably disturbing moments.

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Fantasia 2021, Part XXVI: Follow The Light

Fantasia 2021, Part XXVI: Follow The Light

“Wao” is a 25-minute short film from Japan, directed by Emi Yasumura and written by Atsushi Asada. It’s an odd mix of teen dramedy and science fiction story, in which a youth named Wao meets a trio of other teens who explain to him he’s an alien. This explains certain mysteries of Wao’s life, but he’s not sure he wants to leave Earth permanently. He decides to stake his future on his parents: if he can rekindle a love that seems to have died, he’ll stay on this planet. Things do not go entirely as planned. It’s an entertaining story which works not so much because of the teens but because of the character depth and relationship backstory given to Wao’s parents (I wish I had a reliable cast list that would let me put the names of the actors to their characters). The moral at the end is a bit pat in the way of an old Star Trek episode, but then there are far worse things to be than an old Star Trek episode. You can call the film whimsical, and I think that’s fair in the sense that whimsy to me works when it’s able to include genuine emotional paradox and a certain amount of darkness; “Wao” pulls that off.

Bundled with the short was Follow the Light (光を追いかけて, Hikari wo Oikakete), directed by Yoichi Narita, who wrote the script with Yu Sakudo. It’s set in a small town in Japan, where a boy named Akira (Tsubasa Nakagawa), gifted at drawing, has recently moved with his father Ryota (Taro Suruga). Ryota’s recently had a divorce and so returned to his old home town, but Akira’s having a difficult time fitting in. Then aliens show up. Or, at least, Akira spots a UFO, a mysterious green light streaking across the sky, and on following the light finds local outcast girl Maki (Itsuki Nagasawa) lying in a crop circle. The UFO’s vanished, but the two teens strike up a relationship, which the film follows in and around subplots about the local school being about to shut down, and Ryota rebuilding his life, and Maki’s uncle trying to hold on to his farmland in the face of financial trouble, and Akira fitting in at a school Maki long ago forsook, and a teacher who may be horribly miscast in her profession.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Sinbads Three

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Sinbads Three

Son of Sinbad (USA, 1955)

Sinbad movies loom so large in the history of fantasy film that it’s remarkable there weren’t more of them — only six or seven live-action features from the Forties through the Seventies. Before the sword-and-sorcery boom of the Eighties, if you wanted to watch a film of heroic fantasy, the first thing you reached for probably had Sinbad in its title.

We’ve already covered three of them in this series: Sinbad the Sailor (1947), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), and Captain Sindbad (1963), but we still have three to go, and two of them are by the moviemaker most closely associated with the most splendid of Sinbad movies: Ray Harryhausen. Unfurl your lateen sails for adventure!

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Fantasia 2021, Part XXV: Return Of The Bastard Swordsman

Fantasia 2021, Part XXV: Return Of The Bastard Swordsman

A drum roll and trumpet fanfare; a multicoloured glassy background; a shield-shaped logo with a sunburst inside it and the big letters S and B. It’s the intro to a film, and it tells you just what you’re going to get. The letters stand for Shaw and Brothers, and for me the Fantasia International Film Festival only feels like Fantasia once I watch a classic Shaw Brothers kung-fu cinema gem. Fantasia selections from the Shaw archives typically draw from the later and weirder end of their catalogue, and so it was in 2021 with Return Of The Bastard Swordsman (天蠶变之布衣神相, Bu yi shen xiang).

It’s the 1984 sequel to 1983’s Bastard Swordsman, which played Fantasia in 2017 and is considered here. Brought to us by director Tony Lu, with a story by Ying Wong and a screenplay by Lu and Kuo-Yuan Chang, it picks up right after the first one ends and eases us back in to the story. The evil Invincible Clan want to wipe out the good guys of the Wudang Clan, so one of the Wudang decides to track down Yun Fei Yang (Norman Chu), who mastered the silkworm style and brought victory to Wudang in the original Bastard Swordsman. He’s gone missing, now, though, in Wudang’s hour of need. Yet the evil Dugu Wu Di (Alex Man) of the Invincible Clan has problems of his own — a group of ninjas from Japan has arrived to challenge the champions of China for supremacy in the martial world.

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Seriously? Nobody Here Has Reviewed Alien?

Seriously? Nobody Here Has Reviewed Alien?

Alien (20th Century Fox, May 1979). Directed by Ridley Scott, screenplay by Dan O’Bannon

I am constantly making Alien/Aliens references to my wife and she is constantly reminding me that she has not, in fact, ever seen any of the Alien movies except Prometheus (damn the luck). Having just finished up the 1979 cadre of sci-fi magazines, and noting that many of them had references to the movie Alien, it was finally time to fix this situation — at least with Alien, Aliens, and that part of Alien 3 where half of Lance Henriksen steals the whole movie.

So, we finally watched Alien. And it appears that nobody at Black Gate has ever reviewed it. In fact, it is such a pop culture touchstone that most people know the story without, well, having seen the story. I’m going to start this review by coming out swinging: Alien is one of those movies, kind of like Blade Runner (another Ridley Scott film) – a movie that is far better than it deserves to be, a movie whose every misstep manages to ‘fall up’ as it were.

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Fantasia 2021, Part XXIV: Act Of Violence In A Young Journalist and Straight To VHS

Fantasia 2021, Part XXIV: Act Of Violence In A Young Journalist and Straight To VHS

Straight to VHS (Directamente para Video) is a new documentary from Uruguay that investigates a video oddity from 1988. Act Of Violence In A Young Journalist (Acto de violencia en una joven periodista) is that oddity, an Uruguayan-made direct-to-video film from thirty-three years ago in which directing, writing, cinematography, soundtrack, and editing were all done by one man, Manuel Lamas. None of those things are done particularly well, but for some viewers the movie still has a strange power. The documentary looking at Lamas’ film comes to us from Emilio Silva Torres, and without claiming its subject is any good, it attempts to evoke the feel of looking at weird cinema of uncertain provenance without an internet to explain what you’re seeing. The Fantasia Film Festival bundled the two movies together, so I was able to see the thing itself and the investigation into its background back-to-back.

I started with Act of Violence, and I’m still unsure whether that was the best decision. It’s a movie about a woman journalist, Blanca (Blanca Gimenez), who is compiling a report on the causes of violence. Periodically the story of the film pauses for several minutes as she interviews people about the rise of violence in society; sometimes those people are psychologists from the health department and sometimes they’re soccer commentators. Much of the film is actually about Blanca’s personal life, though, particularly her relationship with Carlos, an Uruguayan businessman with ties to Canada. Except that by the time she meets him Blanca’s already given a piece of simple advice to a friend, which will turn out to have tragic and indeed violent consequences.

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Fantasia 2021, Part XXIII: Giving Birth To A Butterfly

Fantasia 2021, Part XXIII: Giving Birth To A Butterfly

“MonsterDykë” is a four-minute Canadian short directed and written by Kaye Adelaide and Mariel Sharp. It stars Adelaide as a trans sculptress who’s being pestered for a date by a manipulative guy; she hangs up on him and turns to her work-in-progress. At which point the movie turns into an update of the Pygmalion myth. It has an interesting look, shot on back-and-white 16mm film, and is both sweet and explicit. The design of the sculpture’s imaginative, and if the story’s not surprising, at less than five minutes it doesn’t really need to be.

The feature that was bundled with the short was Giving Birth to A Butterfly, which would prove to be one of my pleasant surprises of the 2021 Fantasia Festival. It’s the first film from director Theodore Schafer, who co-wrote it with Patrick Lawler. And it’s a surprising work that seems to change shape as it goes along. The air of surrealism is constant. But the degree of surrealism is not, and what starts at first like a domestic comedy with an odd edge delves into more dreamlike and indeed mythic terrain as the story goes on.

Diana (Annie Parisse) is married to the optimistic but unaccomplished aspiring restauranteur Daryl (Paul Sparks), and is the mother of teens Danielle (Rachel Resheff) and Andrew, AKA Drew (Owen Campbell). Shortly after the movie starts, Drew introduces the family to his new fiancée, Marlene (Gus Birney), who is pregnant and not with with Drew’s child. Diana is not terribly pleased about this situation, but when her identity is stolen she must turn to Marlene to hep her drive to the address of a mysterious company where she hopes to resolve the situation. Meanwhile Danielle’s working backstage on the school play, and Marlene’s mother (Constance Shulman), who sees herself as an actress, is losing touch with reality.

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Fantasia 2021, Part XXII: Baby, Don’t Cry

Fantasia 2021, Part XXII: Baby, Don’t Cry

“Munkie” is a 15-minute short film from New Zealand written and directed by Steven Chow. It follows Rose (Xana Tang), a youth with controlling parents who are immigrants or of recent Asian ancestry. Rose has a plan to stop their interference in her life. But things do have a tendency to go wrong. It’s a fictional story based on a true crime, and it’s very well-done, sketching character and atmosphere coldly and even brutally. It’s a shocking story, and ends in a strong place — that is, a place which leaves the viewer briefly wanting more. In fact it’s a tightly-structured story that does its damage and gets out at the right moment.

Bundled with that short was Baby, Don’t Cry, an American movie directed by Jesse Dvorak. But the main creative force behind the movie seems to be screenwriter and star Zita Bai, who plays Baby, a teenage daughter of Chinese immigrants to the northwestern United States. An outcast, Baby’s got an almost overwhelming interest in filming what is around her, perhaps less as a way to make films and tells stories than to document and record her life. And then she falls in with Fox (Vas Provatakis), a tall shaven-headed white punk leading a wild but independent life. Flashbacks and moments of surrealism and things seen through the camera lens are integrated well, as Baby finds herself pulled from her parents’ abusive home toward an uncertain adulthood.

It’s a movie that hangs out on the edge of genre. You’re never really sure if it’s about to turn into a full-fledged crime story, and I suppose it doesn’t quite, but the very end of the film suggests it should be read as an unconventional fantasy. Or, indeed, on the edge of fantasy and myth. You could perhaps read it as a mimetic story, but I think that would run counter to the plain meaning of what we see (and a question-and-answer session with the filmmakers, available on Fantasia’s YouTube page, would seem to confirm this). It’s an ending that to me opens up a number of further questions, inviting a second watch to see what plays out differently and what does not have the meaning we thought. And this is no bad thing.

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