Fantasia International Film Festival 2016



Every summer, Fantasia Fest turns downtown Montreal into a place of wonder.

Sitting on a VIA Rail train about to leave the beautiful city of Montreal, Quebec, I can’t seem to shake a touch of melancholy. Guess it’s because it’s not just Montreal I’m saying goodbye to. (For now that is; I’ll be back.) It’s also Fantasia Fest. (For now that is; I will certainly be back next year…and the year after that…and the year after that…you get the idea.)

This, although my first Fantasia Fest, is not the first Fantasia Fest.  It’s the 20th; a two-decade milestone worth celebrating by any festival, especially a genre-focused one. But after experiencing just a taste of the fest – Fantasia this year runs from July 14th to August 3rd. I was there for but six of those days. A span of time I now lament as being too short – it’s quite safe to say that Fantasia has quickly and almost immediately become my favorite festival.

Founded by Pierre Corbeil, co-directed by Mitch Davis, and planned, programmed, run and organized by much too many to mention plus a whole cadre of dedicated, helpful, and just plain awesome volunteers, Fantasia has a certain je ne sais quoi, one which I have just discovered but goes a long way toward explaining why dozens of people have said to me over the years, “You have to go to Fantasia!” Well, I did. And they were right.


My first screening, and I have found what would become my favorite seat.

What is it that makes Fantasia so unique? Montreal helps. The city is a wonderfully vibrant cultural and artistic milieu that is a joy to wander, explore and get lost in. And when thousands of film fans, press, and industry descend upon the city, the Montreal air becomes that much more electric. The programming is another credit. Fantasia is a genre fest of the purest type, which means that the programming is diverse, elastic, eclectic and exciting. You can’t pigeonhole the type of films showcased at Fantasia except to say the connective tissue they all share is a spirit of adventure and artistry. Some of the films are challenging and confrontational, others are fantastical and wondrous, while still others are all of the above. The entire globe is represented on celluloid, and an enthusiastic and rapturous audience treats each screening with both reverence and the raucous reception that you can only get at a festival. Fantasia is a place where the film is the star. There may be a big name in attendance (Guillermo Del Toro and Takashi Miike were two such notables this year, with more to come as the fest continues), but they never outshine the film they are there to host. Fantasia is also a place where a filmmaker presenting his debut feature can be treated as big a rock star as Kevin Smith will undoubtedly be when he brings his eagerly awaited Yoga Hosers to the fest later on in the month.


The lights go down.

Finally, at Fantasia everyone feels important. Other festivals tend to make the attendee feel like cattle, the screenings a herding rather than a celebration. Not so at Fantasia. The event is so well-run and the volunteers and organizers so cordial and helpful, you can’t help but feel good. Fantasia is not exhausting like other festivals sometimes are. Rather, it’s invigorating, exciting, and an affirmation of the power and wonder of the flickering image.

Reviews of two of the films that I experienced at Fantasia follow, and more will continue in the coming days. But there’s one more thing that needs to be said. It’s something that has been repeated to me oft before, but now that I am one of the converted, I’ll say it too: You have to go to Fantasia!

The Unseen

The UnseenThere’s more than horror that meets the eye in accomplished makeup-man Geoff Redknap’s debut feature The Unseen. Ostensibly a variation of “The Invisible Man,” The Unseen’s cumulative effect is so much more than its genre trappings suggest. Strip away the (admittedly wonderful) special effects and horror/sci-fi elements, and The Unseen, which Redknap both wrote and directed, would remain just as powerful as both a touching tale of family and a poignant look at the sacrifices our parents make for us.  Sacrifices which are not seen nor appreciated until much later in life.

An intense and multi-faceted performance by Aden Young anchors the picture. He plays Bob Langmore, a one time professional hockey player who long ago abandoned his wife and daughter and absconded to rural (and very wintery) British Colombia to toil in a mill. But it wasn’t career prospects which necessitated Langmore’s exodus. It’s a mysterious skin condition/flesh disease which is eating him away, gradually turning him invisible. (This is not your typical Claude Rains, swaddled-in-bandages type invisibility. The effects utilized to depict Bob’s gradual disintegration are incredibly realized and gruesomely effective.)

Events transpire which lead Bob back to the city and back to his estranged wife Darlene and daughter Eva. Although both are tentative and unsure at first, Bob and Eva slowly shed their armor and open up to one another. When Eva turns up missing, both the film and Young’s performance go into overdrive. The protective coating peels away from the laconic ex-hockey goon, as he’ll stop at nothing to rescue the daughter with whom he has only recently reunited.

There are other surprises to discover in The Unseen, but to reveal more would be criminal, for The Unseen is a must-see. It’s also a rare sort of beast: a low-key family drama cum gruesome horror that’s both evocative and thrilling in equal measure.

**** (out of five)

The Lure

the-lureIn tribute to the passing earlier this year of great Polish filmmaker Andrzej Zulawski (Possession), Fantasia has programmed a slate of Polish genre offerings. The one I caught was The Lure. Fest co-director Mitch Davis seemed pretty high on it, and the synopsis sounded all kinds of fantastic, so it’s safe to say I was excited.

I was fairly certain the film would deliver. What I didn’t foresee, however, was just how wondrous the The Lure would be. For 98 minutes, I was glued to my seat in the upper balcony of the theatre, eyes transfixed on the screen. The Lure is another debut offering, this time from Agnieszka Smoczynska, and what a debut! The film I saw seemed like it should have come from someone who has been making films for years and thus was so assured of her considerable craft that she could present something so audaciously entertaining.

The tale of two mermaid siren sisters, Silver and Golden, who emerge from the sea to look for prey (they are carnivorous), only to become part of a musical act and fall in love is dizzying in its bravado. It’s a kaleidoscopic, sexy, kinetic and frenetic bloody fairy tale of love, fame, jealously and heartbreak. And it’s a musical too boot (the first to ever come out of Poland), with some of the catchiest songs I’ve heard in a while and incredibly fun and infectious choreography.

The Lure defines fantastic cinema and redefines the inherent capabilities of the medium to expose the viewer to something truly original and spectacular. The highest recommendation for The Lure.

***** (out of five)


Some Freaks



SomeFreaksSome Freaks is not the typical type of picture you would expect to find playing at a world-renowned genre festival, but then again, Fantasia isn’t your typical genre fest. Hence, the darkly empathetic, teen-coming-of-age drama fits in perfectly alongside films by Takashi Miike and Mike Flanagan. Some Freaks is John Hughes meets Todd Solondz (or more accurately, Neil LaBute, who served as executive producer on the film.)

Self-identity, self-perception and self-confidence are the themes that govern Some Freaks; the word “Freak” in the title applying to just about every central character in some way or another. High-school senior Matt is definitely a freak. Literally. Missing one eye and forced to wear an eye patch, Matt (played by Thomas Mann, who was excellent in last year’s superb Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) roams the halls of his high school as his schoolmates ridicule his “deformity” with taunts of “cyclops”. Like all high school outcasts, Matt has that one friend who’s just as socially awkward as he is. In this case, it’s Elmo (Ely Henry), a stubby teen whose outward humor masks some serious insecurities as a result of his inward struggle with his sexuality. He’s a freak too, but his freakishness is more of the introspective, “I don’t know where I belong” type. Straddling the line between the internal and external freak is Jill (Lily Mae Harrington), Elmo’s cousin, who has recently transferred to their high school. In a world of “normals,” Jill is decidedly not-so. She’s overweight, dies her hair green and has multiple piercings. Her external freakishness is denoted by the cruel put-downs directed toward her, but she seems to have made peace with her freakishness. Seems being the operative word.

Of course, after an inauspicious first meeting, Matt and Jill begin to hang out. First as friends, then as lovers. Two outcasts coming together, discovering a kindred spirit and reveling in their perceived otherness. Perceived being the other operative word.

For Some Freaks is really about perception. How we perceive (and preconceive) others, sure, but more importantly, how others perceive us. And how our perceptions of the way other’s perceive us dictate the way we feel about ourselves. In No Exit, Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote “Hell is other people”. According to the French philosopher, we become objects in the gaze of others, resulting in the feeling of shame. The gaze of the other freezes us into a sort of being that we may or may not be, but it is the other who defines us. And how we create and recreate ourselves is dependent on the approval (or disapproval) of the other.

For as long as Matt and Jill approve of one another, all is hunky dory. But when Jill goes away to college, loses 50 pounds and dies her hair blonde, Matt no longer approves. Not anymore is Jill the other whom he wants/needs her to be, and his insecurities and sense of self, once buoyed by her presence, begin to crumble. He lashes out violently both physically and emotionally, and Jill returns the sentiment.

The film raises a lot of questions surrounding identity and normalcy. It sets itself among adolescents, a time of life when the grasp on those concepts is at its most tenuous. But Some Freaks is not a film just for adolescents. First-time writer and director Ian MacAllister McDonald has created a challenging picture which will resonate with viewers of all ages – from the very young to the very old. For at the end of the day, young, old or in-between, aren’t we’re all just freaks withering within the gaze of the other? In Some Freaks, every viewer will recognize a part of themselves. And though that recognition might be uncomfortable, it is also what makes us the most human.

A must see.

**** (out of five)


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