2020 is a strange year and it is just as strange for film festivals. For the first time, the Fantasia film festival will go completely online which is not ideal, but it’s the current world we are living in. And to be quite cliche, the show must go on. It’s at least a reminder of how much we miss the entire experience of going to the movies and seeing a great performance with a group of our peers; More than ever, I wish I could just sit with fans of the horror genre with a big bag of popcorn on my lap. This year, there’s good and bad at Fantasia, filled with a mix of films, ranging from the standard horror flicks, but there’s also a bit of weird sci-fi, excellent documentaries, and a monster picture Godzilla would be proud of. It’s Fantasia and you never know what you will get so here are a few of the movies I checked out for AMovieGuy.com:
MOVIE: FRIED BARRY
DIRECTOR: RYAN KRUGER
Fried Barry seems like it could be a fun concept, it involves a heroin junkie who is abducted by an alien and has a night out on the town experiencing life like an alien never has before. The concept may have worked better as a short film, which is what director Ryan Kruger did, but as a full-length feature things become stale quickly. We get to see Barry do copious amounts of drugs, eat shitty food, have sex with prostitutes, and even save a bunch of kids from a creepy child abductor. Kruger does it all with an in-your-face camera style to make things feel distorted and a score that is all techno-alien style. Fried Barry has some wacky moments that amuse, especially lead actor Gary Green, who is a towering and intriguing figure to observe. A few wild moments will make you cringe, Barry getting a tooth removed with a pliers, an instant alien baby is born from one of the prostitutes, and some people are hit with cars. It might have been more fun with the Fantasia audience, but at home Fried Barry is a repetitive mess.
MOVIE: CLIMATE OF THE HUNTER
DIRECTOR: MICKEY REECE
I was surprised at how much Climate of the Hunter relied on the actors to carry the weight. There’s a bit more to this movie than just it being about a love triangle between two sisters and a man that might be a vampire. It’s more about the two sisters, competing for a position of status, trying to impress each other in every conversation, and putting one another down with slight remarks. Director Mickey Reece captures a weekend at the family summer home of Elizabeth (Mary Buss) and Alma (Ginger Gilmartin), who invite Wesley (Ben Hall) over for a relaxing time of meals, drinks, and games. Each item on the menu is introduced with a VO and followed by a collection of odd stories told by Wesley about his various experiences in Europe. The charm of Wesley bounces back and forth between the two ladies, till Elizabeth notices him sleeping during the day and interestingly allergic to garlic. Is he a vampire? You need to find out, but Climate of the Hunter is surprisingly richer in characters than I expected. It does not deliver enough to earn high praise, but there’s much to be said for the performances by the three leads. I’m not sweating over Climate of the Hunter, but it’s enough to keep me cool.
MOVIE: THE FIVE RULES OF SUCCESS
DIRECTED BY: ORSON OBLOWITZ
The word to describe The Five Rules of Success is depressing. Not because it is a bad movie, in fact it might be the best work from a director at Fantasia this year, but it’s still not a movie I would recommend. Orson Oblowitz (Trespassers) has made a passion project. He is the director, writer, cinematographer, and editor of this movie. Sadly, it’s a depressing story about a man named X (Santiago Segura) who is released from prison after a long stay and must adapt to his new life. The work he finds gives him some stability, working as a busboy for a Greek restaurant, but owner Avakian (Jon Skarloff) wants X to keep an eye on his lowlife son Danny (Jonathan Howard). This leads to bad situations of drugs and bad people. Even with the pressure from his parole officer and constant bad people around him, X has dreams of opening up his own restaurant, but The Five Rules of Success is about seeing if he survives. This is a movie of rare air, where the work by director Oblowitz is incredibly impressive, but the narrative is so bleak, so dire that it makes it impossible to enjoy. I would say the path to success is to skip this one and see something else.
MOVIE: THE COLUMNIST
DIRECTOR: IVO VAN AART
In 2020 there is no better justice than a journalist getting even with the online trolls. When creating a reversed fantasy satire, where someone is able to get back at those who were mean to them, you need to have the right touch. And The Columnist has that. It begins with lead Katja Herbers- a rising star for sure – as Femke Boot, an editorial columnist for a newspaper and political commentator, who has the joy of seeing the hateful comments on her work. As one character tells her, “never read the comments”, but for Femke the hatred has gone too far. So she takes things into her hands and decides to kill people who have expressed that hatred. What makes The Columnist work so well is how Femke balances being a mother, writing, and her love life, while also finding happiness in getting back at the haters. Director Ivo van Aart has a nice connection with why film critics will love this movie and he also follows Herbers who has an attitude and charisma that makes it one of the best movies at Fantasia this year. It just might be my favorite. Long story short, don’t piss off a journalist.
MOVIE: CLAPBOARD JUNGLE: SURVIVING THE INDEPENDENT FILM BUSINESS
DIRECTOR: JUSTIN MCCONNELL
A documentary that caught me by surprise at Fantasia was Clapboard Jungle. It’s not necessarily the movie for everyone, but it is the perfect movie for anyone in the industry of movie making. The common filmgoer might not care much, but Clapboard Jungle is an important movie for anyone in this industry, including yours truly. I was fascinated with director Justin McConnell, who documents his struggle of getting his films funded, finding the right screenplay, the hustle, the connections, and the crippling pain of defeat. He balances his own personal struggles with talking head interviews. We see all levels of people trying to make movies: Oscar winning directors: Guillermo del Toro, cult film directors: Larry Cohen, and independent darlings such as Aaron Moorehead and Justin Benson. It’s both a sad and therapeutic film, reminding us that being an artist is an extremely painful process, and sometimes rewarding. Above it all, it’s a reminder that we’re all in it together.
MOVIE: MONSTER SEAFOOD WARS
DIRECTOR: MINORU KAWASAKI
It was quite the coincidence that Fantasia 2020 would have a big monster kaiju picture, because I just finished my Godzilla Criterion Collection, and I’ve been obsessed with these kinds of movies. Monster Seafood Wars is a bit too silly at times, but these types of movies are always that way, especially if they are in the spirit of the Toho Godzilla films. Minoru Kawasaki does a nice job of finding the independent spirit of Fantasia with a microbudget picture, entirely focused on putting a stop to three big fish from destroying Japan. Yuta drops a squid, an octopus, and a crab he’s delivering into a river and the results are monstrous. Now it is up to the Seafood Monster Attack Team to take them down, but finding out how is the problem. It has a bit of the spirit of a 70’s Godzilla picture, mixed with the current technology of YouTube videos and video games, so it has enough for you to enjoy. I was a bit annoyed with the diverted battle for culinary greatness, using the monsters to feed the world, but it’s not always easy making a kaiju movie work.
MOVIE: FEELS GOOD MAN
DIRECTOR: ARTHUR JONES
By far one of the best films at Fantasia this year is Feels Good Man. Where does one begin? This is a documentary about what happens when an artist has an animated character he draws that becomes a symbol of hatred. Matt Furie created the character Pepe the Frog, but little did he know that one day his bug-eyed walking frog would become the symbol for nazis, white supremacists, MAGA crazed bigots, and anyone who hates minority groups. What began as a caricature made by Furie was no longer his, no longer something silly, and Feels Good Man does an excellent job of tracking it’s transformation. Director Arthur Jones also does a unique job of capturing the toxicity of the internet, a place that continues to be the death of intellectual thought, and the cesspool for angry, hateful people. This is an incredibly scary documentary. It captures everything that is wrong with the world today and how a collection of online goons hide behind their keyboards. Feels Good Man proves that it’s important for artists to protect their work more than ever and the character of Pepe will never be anything, but a symbol of hatred. It’s hard not to feel bad for Matt Furie. He’s a good artist.
MOVIE: CHASING DREAM
DIRECTOR: JOHNNIE TO
The most amazing accomplishment at Fantasia this year is Johnnie To’s Chasing Dream. The Chinese director has made a collection of fantastic movies in the past- see Drug War today- and Chasing Dream is not his best, but this is a weird mixture of genres that miraculously works. It involves an MMA fighter named Tiger (Jacky Heung), a rising star in the sport, and looking to make the big bucks. Cuckoo (Keru Wang) is one of the ringside ladies, taking any job she can get, with big dreams of winning the American Idol-style show called “Perfect Diva”. All of these asspirations put Tiger and Cuckoo in a position where they can help one another, but their friendship turns into a romance they did not know was there. The best way to describe Chasing Dream is that it’s Rocky meets A Star is Born. Johnnie To being the constant artist, he mixes in the styles of Bollywood, intense fight choreography, and a song & dance sequence that reminded me of La La Land. Crazy as that all sounds, To found a way to make it work. There’s some odd humor, uplifting heroics, and an ending that is uplifting, no matter how predictable that is. Chasing Dream is a delightful winner that represents the great spirit of Fantasia.
MOVIE: FREE COUNTRY
DIRECTOR: CHRISTIAN ALVART
I’m still praising The Columnist as my favorite movie of Fantasia 2020, but Free Country blindsided me. Two different detectives- Patrick Stein (Trystan Putter) and Markus Bach (Felix Kramer)- converge on a small German town to investigate the murder of two teenage sisters. The mystery becomes complex when the people in town won’t help and look to protect the rampant criminals instead. Director Christian Alvart’s German cop drama is unique and thrilling from beginning to end. It’s also rich with characters, especially Kramer’s mustached brute of a detective Bach, sketching pictures of possible witnesses, swigging pilsners, and throwing his weight around. The style of Free Country is very much David Fincher’s Seven and the kind of picture William Friedkin would praise. Cop movies such as this are always solid and Free Country is a thrilling mystery that is incredibly authentic. Free Country is excellent.
DIRECTOR: JOHN HSU
John Hsu’s Detention is a weird one. Not weird in a negative way, but not entirely sure footed in its narrative style. The Taiwanese film is set in 1962, where two students- Fang (Gingle Wang) and Wei (Jing-Hua Tseng)- are under the pressure of martial law, and constant loyalty given to the country. Two of their teachers- Ms. Win (Cecelia Choi) and Mr. Chang (Meng Po-fu) develop a secret school program, where their students can read banned books, or express themselves through art. When the students find themselves trapped in the school at night, and during a storm, weird things begin to happen. Ghosts appear and visions begin revealing reasons why some teachers have gone missing. It’s a bit slow in various parts and there’s a lacking feeling of tension in the efforts to scare. The deception among schoolmates becomes the major focal point and the horror moments lose focus. It made a bit more sense to hear that Detention was based on a famous video game because the rooms have a unique texture that reminded me of Silent Hill at times. Not a complete miss, just not near my favorite of Fantasia 2020.
DIRECTOR: JOHN HYAMS
It’s cool that Alone arrives at Fantasia just a week after Unhinged was the first movie to open theaters back up. Here is an example of how a lower-budgeted film does things better than the movie that had the bigger box-office names. Director John Hyams sets the stage early. Jessica (rising star Jules Wilcox) is going away, where exactly, we don’t know, but her husband recently passed away, so she’s getting in her car, has a U-Haul hitched on, and leaves. Family calls along the way and before she is comfortably on the road, she encounters a driver that won’t let her pass by. It’s a creepy moment that will come back to haunt. The driver- known in the credits as Man (Marc Menchaca)- see’s Jessica at a motel and apologizes. It’s nice, but Jessica just wants to get away, and no good deed goes without a creep stalking you. Alone starts as a road rage stalking, to a kidnapping, to a survival in the woods and it’s all constantly thrilling. The one difference that Alone has compared to Unhinged is that it’s a story of survival and Wilcox is game from start to end, delivering a performance that feels perfectly opposite to what Crowe did. The script from Mattias Olsson is layered with elements and fears that would hit anyone in this situation and Hyams isn’t afraid to change the pace. Alone is a reminder to just drive with a friend next time. It’s easily one of my favorites of Fantasia 2020.
MOVIE: BLEED WITH ME
DIRECTOR: AMELIA MOSES
I wanted Amelia Moses’ Bleed With Me to be good and it has a bit of the elements that I typically would love- a cabin in the woods and vampires. Sadly, none of those aspects ever come to full fruition. Moses is the director and writer, obviously filled with incredible talent to get a movie this far, it’s technically solid. The tone is set midway through. Emily (Lauren Beatty) and Brendan (Aris Tyros) have escaped to a summer home in the woods, but it’s not a romantic escape because Rowan (Lee Marshall) has tagged along. She’s the third wheel, but Emily saw it as a chance to give friend Rowan some mental help. The three enjoy some drinks and conversations, but weird things start to happen to Rowan. She wakes up with cuts on her arms at night, or so she thinks. Are Emily and Brendan vampires? Possibly, but each time Rowan thinks she has an answer, she wakes up to find nothing wrong. One of the major problems with Bleed With Me is that it’s a constant bounce back and forth between dreams and reality, which becomes incredibly redundant. There’s a strong moody setting, I just wish Moses would have gone all out and let the vampire stuff fly. It’s a miss, but I’m excited to see what Amelia Moses does next.