Saturday, August 13, 2011

Fantasia 2011

Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival is in a class of its own. It is one of the best genre film festivals in the world and as such entertains, thrills, chills and jolts its audience with fascinating films from all corners of the globe. The festival has gone from strength to strength in its 15 years of existence under the magnificent direction of Mitch Davis. Fantasia runs for a staggering 3.5 weeks (24 days) and is a film festival truly for the fans. When it comes to film festivals, one hardly talks about the atmosphere generated by film fans but in the case of Fantasia, for years I had heard about the rocking atmosphere that took place in the Concordia Hall theater when 700 fans brought the cinema down. Attending Fantasia was on my wish list for a long time so this year, in the 15th anniversary of the Festival, I decided to finally take the plunge.

8 in 3 days

I attended 8 films during my first trip to the Vancouver Film Festival in 2006, the same number as I did at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The common number was just a coincidence but in both cases this total allowed me to enjoy a decent selection of films, spend time with family/friends, get some rest while taking in some of the best the cities had to offer. So this time around, I decided to go with the number 8 again, but the overall breakdown ended up being different. In Vancouver, I had a 3-4-1 tally with 3 films on a Friday, 4 on a Saturday and a single film on sunday while in Toronto I registered 4-3-0-1 with 4 films on a Thursday and a single one again on the sunday. For Montreal, the number ended being 2-5-1, starting with 2 on a friday. I could have packed in more films at Fantasia but I also wanted to spend some time visiting the city’s numerous brewpubs and third-wave cafes.

So the lucky 8 films in order of viewing:

Blackthorn (2011, Spain/USA/Bolivia/France, Mateo Gil)
Beyond the Black Rainbow (2011, Canada, Panos Cosmatos)
Gantz (2010, Japan, Shinsuke Sato)
Gantz: Perfect Answer (2011, Japan, Shinsuke Sato)
Article 12 (2010, UK/Argentina, Juan Manuel Biaiñ)
Dharma Guns (2010, France/Portugal, F.J. Ossang)
Morituris (2011, Italy, Raffaele Picchio)
Redline (2009, Japan, Takeshi Koike)

I had planned my trip long before the final film schedule was released so it turned out many of the films from my wish list were not playing during my visit but I still had plenty of hope from my picks. On paper, Blackthorn appeared enticing. It marked the English language directional debut of Mateo Gil, a writer I held in high regard because of his excellent writing for Thesis, Open Your Eyes, The Sea Inside and The Method. The cast of Sam Shepard, Eduardo Noriega, Stephen Rea and Magaly Solier (she stole the show in both Claudia Llosa features Madeinusa and The Milk of Sorrow) was equally tantalizing. Plus, the fictional account of Butch Cassidy’s apparent survival and secret life in South America (Bolivia) had all the making of a cult film. Unfortunately, the film is a disappointment. Even though Blackthorn contains many memorable sequences, good acting and some picturesque shoot-outs, the good individual parts never add up to a complete whole. The film does contain some memorable lines especially regarding how three different characters curse Bolivia because they were ultimately defeated there. Interestingly, Che Guevera was also defeated in Bolivia, so there is certainly a cinematic possibility in exploring the political games played out in Bolivia.

Beyond the Black Rainbow had plenty of buzz around it and Todd Brown’s excellent write-up was certainly inviting:

Born of the pre-teen fantasies of writer-director Panos Cosmatos as he browsed the selection of early 1980s Canadian science fiction and horror VHS tapes that he would never be allowed to rent, BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW is a psychedelic head trip of the highest order. Cosmatos captures the aesthetics of an era effortlessly while fusing those influences into something bold and visionary and entirely his own. The accomplished music video director — he’s done work for the Handsome Furs, among others — plunges the audience into a sort of sensory overload as he fuses elements of Reagan-era paranoia, social engineering run amok and a drug-fuelled step up the evolutionary ladder to create a hypnotic experience that plays out like a Tarkovsky-style science fiction picture as filtered through the visual style of LOGAN’S RUN. Michael Rogers delivers a mesmerizing performance as Barry Nyle, his cold and clinical exterior concealing a layer of obsession and... something else. But as gripping as Rogers is, it’s the world that Cosmatos creates that is the real star, the visuals providing a truly immersive experience matched by the original score, composed by Black Mountain’s Jeremy Schmidt entirely on vintage analog synthesizers. Just let it all wash over you.

Panos Cosmatos has indeed done an excellent job in recreating the 1980’s feel and I felt I was watching a horror/thriller from that era on a VHS tape. On top of that, the film’s bright neon tinged palette leads viewers on a tipsy hallucinatory psychedelic ride. Unfortunately, when the stylistic layers are peeled off, there is very little depth in the film. There are plenty of references to conspiracy theories/experiments but those references appear to be elements inserted in the film to allow audience to draw their own interpretations and add more meaning to the film than there really is. For majority of the film, the style dominates but once the bright lights are turned out, the film comfortably settles into B-grade mode.

Gantz came in second place for the Audience Awards at the New York Asian Film Festival and was one of the films I was most looking forward to. So were about 699 other people. Only in Fantasia can 700 people be packed in a theater at 11:25 am on Saturday morning and be in amazing spirits. Each frame of the film was cheered on until the opening credits and after that, the film’s key scenes elicited huge roars of approval. Gantz has an incredible opening sequence, perfectly outlined by Rupert Bottenberg in the Fantasia film guide:

Two young men wait among the crowd on a subway platform, a flicker of recognition passing between them. Before they can speak, a man falls, helpless, on the tracks. One youth jumps down to save him. The other reaches down to help, and falls himself. The train is coming, fast, and they don’t have time to climb back up out of its way. The train slams into them — and they find themselves, from one split second to the next, in a clean yet unfurnished apartment overlooking Tokyo. In the room with them are several other men — a gangster, a slacker, a pair of nervous salarymen — who seem just as confused and disoriented as they are. Also in the room is a sphere. A large, smooth, hard black sphere, which quickly reveals itself to have strange and amazing powers. Text scrolls across the sphere, explaining that the old lives of all in the room are now over. Their new lives belong to the sphere. That’s when the weapons come out, and the players’ first target for extermination revealed.

The mysterious black orb is naturally Gantz and it controls all the players lives and wants them to fight aliens that are living among humans on Earth. It scores the players based on their performances in exterminating the aliens. If a player reaches 100 points then they can either use the points to return to their lives or use the points to resurrect another player but be stuck in the game themselves. The first Gantz film spends time developing the characters and lays the foundation for how the players learn to use their new found powers. The second film Gantz: Perfect Answer promises to answer everything but instead it creates more subplots and weaves an even bigger web of mystery around Gantz. The film introduces a palm sized black orb which is instructing a former Gantz player to kill other people to introduce them in the game. On one hand, Gantz is getting people killed and introduced in the game while on the other hand, players are on the verge of returning to their former lives. Eventually, the mystery around the two black orbs are tied and the film offers many answers but still many things are left untied, presumably for a future sequel or even a prequel. Put together the two films are very entertaining but each film contains many disposable sequences that simply draw out the plot longer than needed. The first film is a better overall work than the second film which spends a generous amount of time on players vs alien fight sequences. Still, Gantz is worth watching and will certainly create a huge fan base.

Article 12 explores how modern technology is reducing people’s right to privacy without people’s awareness. The film features prominent speakers, including Noam Chomsky, and echoes George Orwell in exploring the eroding private/public boundaries in modern Western society. However, the 75 minute film basically contains 10-15 minutes of interesting ideas and spends the rest of the time repeating the same messages over and over. As a result, the film easily wears
out its welcome and ends up being quite tiresome.

F.J Ossang’s Dharma Guns is a film with great potential and incredible style. The first image in the film is in color but the rest of the film is in black and white and features a possible end of the world scenario where a mysterious drug is turning people into zombies. The key to save the world lies in an unfinished script that Stan Van Der Decken cannot complete because of his memory loss. On top of that, he cannot get a hold of his mysterious agent and is hounded by an underground group called Dharma Guns. No zombie is ever shown on screen and that gives the film an air of mystery and doubt. Plus, there are many engaging ideas presented in Dharma Guns but unfortunately, the end result is a lackluster film that cannot thread all the elements together.

One of the things I was most looking forward to in Fantasia was seeing a midnight feature in the Hall theater. The opportunity to witness a packed audience elevate the thrills of a horror feature was one I did not want to miss. So I was surprized when the midnight feature Morituris was not even half full. The feature prior to Morituris was jam-packed and had an after-party around midnight so maybe that drew some people away. Or people were more interested in the International Fireworks competition taking place in Montreal that night. Whatever the reasons, it turned out the audience was smart enough in staying away. However, the lack of crowd did not deter director Raffaele Picchio who was in great spirits because this screening marked the international premier of his film. He told the audience that they would witness a "nasty" film and he was right. Although before the nastiness started, Morituris starts off in a flashback mode with found camera footage showing a family’s picnic going horribly wrong when the family is killed by a mysterious evil force from within the forest. The film then cuts to the present when a speeding car packed with five people, three men and two women, is en route to the same forest for a rave party. The conversations flow naturally among the five in the film’s best segment. However, once the five enter the forest, things go wrong as expected. In keeping with the horror film template, the nasty things happen to the women first. The suffering of the men is not far away but when the evil finds the men, it is in the form of men in body paint and gladiator attire, looking more comical than scary. There are some torture segments in the finale but the film ends up being an awful viewing, mostly due to uninspired direction in the final third. As an aside, one would think that in this day and age needless abuse of female characters in horror films would stop but directors keep thinking of new ways to inflict pain to female characters, all for the sake of shock.

Redline, the eight film, was pure fun. Once again, it was incredible to see a packed hall at 11 am on sunday morning, this time cheering on a Japanese anime. The story of the film features incredible car-racing sequences in a futuristic Japan where races take place on various planets between aliens and humans alike. The cars of Speed Racer have nothing on Redline which feature nitro-powered cars flying at unimaginable speeds. The high speeds led to the racers eyes on the verge of popping out and eventually result in complete breakdown of the cars. One incredible sequence in the film features a disintegration of a car but the human drivers fly across the track to still finish the race.

Ratings & Overall comments

A rough ratings of the films out of 10:

Blackthorn: 5.5
Beyond the Black Rainbow: 6.5
Gantz: 8
Gantz: Perfect Answer: 7
Article 12: 5
Dharma Guns: 6
Morituris: 2
Redline: 8

Unfortunately, my picks may not have resulted in too many stellar films but overall, Fantasia was the best film festival experience of my life. As diverse as the films were, they still demonstrated purposeful programming and each film fit perfectly within the festival’s desire to hunt the world for genre films which push the envelope and are not afraid to take risks. Plus, the framework around the festival ensures a great experience. The two main theaters, Hall (capacity 700) and J.A. De Seve Theater (capacity 173), are not only across the road from each other but are connected by an underground tunnel. The tunnel also leads to the Metro, the most efficient metro system in Canada, which ensures one can get to most spots around Montreal in minutes. Also, there is an excellent selection of restaurants, cafes and brewpubs around the two theaters which means a person is always well nourished in between the films.

The timing of the film festival in summer also means that one can enjoy the great weather of Montreal which makes for relaxing walks in-between destinations even late at night (say 2 am after a midnight feature) when downtown is still bursting with life. Given that that film festival lasts 24 days means a minimum of a one week trip is required to properly assess the films and soak in the best that Montreal has to offer.

Note: some of the brewpubs and cafes I sampled during Fantasia are listed in a separate post.


Sam Juliano said...

This is one of the most passionate and utterly comprehensive film fetival roundups I have read at any site, and I congratulate you, Sachin, on managing eight films and likening the venture as the most satifying of your film festival appearances! I would myself too been most excited about the Gantz of these offerings but I am not all that familiar here to make a valid call. I agree that mateo Gill has done some great work on the writing front, and that would make his directorial debut significant alone. Likewise, I know Cosmatos is an important artist too and very much appreciate the feedback from you. I concur with you on Mr. Brown's excellent essay on BLACK RAINBOW.

Great too that you and your family can take in the cultural advantages and the weather in Montreal. That is indeed a long run for the festival, but it's clear Fantasia has come into its own!

Sachin said...

Thanks soooo much for the generous praise Sam. Your kind words certainly mean a lot :) In the past, I would have easily seen more films but Montreal has so much to offer that I had to make an exception. Just a wonderful perfect experience overall.