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Fantasia Film Festival

Fantasia 2019: ‘The Art of Self-Defense’ is a Frightening Investigation into the Cult of Masculinity

‘The Art of Self-Defense’ is one of the better American indie films of 2019, and makes Riley Stearns a talent to watch.

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The long-awaited second feature from Riley Stearns after quirky 2014 cult thriller Faults stars Jesse Eisenberg as Casey, a depressed and meek loner seduced by a martial-arts cult after a near-death experience.

Casey is a bookish accountant whose unisex name isn’t the only thing men find feminine about him; he owns a dachshund, is learning French, and listens to soft contemporary music. He also spends his days surveying expense reports, being mocked by his co-workers, and generally avoiding any eye contact with his peers. At night, he mostly locks himself in his apartment, masturbates, and has conversations with his dog. As hard as he tries to ingratiate himself with the other men, he seems to always come up short. One night while walking to the store to buy food for his dachshund, a gang of motorcycle hooligans beats him within an inch of his life, then leave him to die on the asphalt.

When he finally nurses himself back to health, Casey looks for ways to protect himself — first by purchasing firearms, and later by signing up for karate classes. This new hobby gives him both purpose and discipline, and more importantly, it makes him feel wanted — thanks to a charismatic karate instructor (Alessandro Nivola) who does everything in his power to boost his self-confidence. Despite his lack of talent, Casey pushes hard in hopes of impressing his colleagues, and maybe one day owning a black belt. After revealing what motivated him to take karate in the first place, his Sensei invites him to his private night class. That’s when his reality becomes a surreal, twisted nightmare, and over the course of a set of unpredictable events, the night class leads to violence, while Sensei reveals himself to be a dangerously disturbed individual.

Art of Self Defense

When discussing The Art of Self-Defense, it’s hard to ignore plot comparisons to David Fincher’s Fight Club. The film isn’t anywhere near as stylized as Fincher’s classic, nor does it have the soundtrack, big budget, or the star power to dazzle mainstream moviegoers, but like Fight Club, Stearns’ sophomore feature is about the quest for an ideal masculinity. And like Fight Club, The Art of Self-Defense investigates toxic masculinity within a cult led by the enigmatic Sensei, who preys on a lonely and confused man. At the start Casey is timid, weak, vulnerable and downright defenseless; Sensei knows this, and so does everything in his power to manipulate him. As Casey finds himself dangerously drawn deeper and deeper into the culture of the dojo, it affects every aspect of his personality and life in dangerous ways. To be a man, one must learn to punch with their feet and kick with their fists says Sensei, whose karate school soon reveals itself to be similar to an actual terrorist organization.

The Art of Self-Defense is also drawing comparisons to Jody Hill’s bleak but brilliant Observe and Report, as well as Danny McBride’s severely underrated Foot Fist Way, with its deadpan humour and overall slapdash structure. Only, unlike those films, The Art of Self-Defence isn’t really funny. In fact, despite what some critics will have you believe, the film is downright depressing, and when Casey fully steps into his alpha self, it’s quite terrifying to witness Sensei manipulate, abuse, and brainwash his student.

Art of Self Defense Review

The Art of Self-Defense is a film that can test your patience. I wouldn’t call the pacing unbearably slow, but it does take its sweet time getting from one scene to the next, with characters saying and doing things that seem oddly out of place. Stearns’ script has a tendency to linger on oddly mundane moments and dry interactions that at times overstay their welcome, but what makes The Art of Self-Defense great is how it manages to shift its gears entirely and surprise viewers. It helps that the cast is uniformly strong, most notably Jesse Eisenberg and his co-star Imogen Poots, who plays Anna, one of Sensei’s pupils and the film’s only woman — and foil to all the men. Eisenberg’s Casey is indeed similar to the characters that the actor has become famous for, only this might be his wildest performance ever. As the karate-obsessed loser on the brink of losing his mind, Casey is simultaneously pathetic and frightening, and yet you can’t help but feel sorry for the guy. Meanwhile, Imogen Poots’ Anna has infinitely more confidence than Casey, but she has internalized so much of the dojo’s misogyny that she’s clearly emotionally damaged and unable to crawl out of her shell.

The Art of Self-Defense juggles several emotions from scene to scene. It can be absurd yet relevant — fun and disarmingly scary right down to it disturbingly cathartic climax. It goes in so many different directions, in fact, that it feels impossible to pigeonhole into one specific genre but that’s what ultimately gives it a staying power. The twists and turns that follow seem straight out of a traditional kung fu movie, only it doubles as a keen critique of male violence and the notion of power at large. Shot in a mere 21 days, The Art of Self-Defense is one of the better American indie films of 2019 — and makes Riley Stearns a talent to watch.

– Ricky D

The Fantasia Film Festival runs July 11 – August 4. Visit the official website for more information.

Some people take my heart, others take my shoes, and some take me home. I write, I blog, I podcast, I edit, and I design websites. Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Goomba Stomp and the NXpress Nintendo Podcast. Former Editor-In-Chief of Sound On Sight, and host of several podcasts including the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead podcasts, as well as the Sound On Sight and Sordid Cinema shows.

Fantasia Film Festival

Fantasia 2019: ‘Ride Your Wave’ Explores Mourning and Loss

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Writer/director Masaaki Yuasa continues to be one of the most distinctive voices in anime today, with a clear and unique style that has garnered him something of a fan following with both light family fare like Lu Over the Wall and the very, very not-family-friendly Devilman Crybaby. Yuasa’s films and series have a distinct and inimitable rhythm, a mile-a-minute pace that comes with a love of the surreal and the absurd that makes for delirious, breathless works. But rather than be boxed in with distinctive style, Yuasa often branches out to pursue different moods and atmospheres, which leads us to his latest work, Ride Your Wave.

It’s a more sedate film than some might be hoping for, a lovely tale of loss and family that still has many of Yuasa’s earmarks, but is a bit more measured and restrained than something like The Night is Short, Walk on Girl. This could easily leave Yuasa’s fans a bit lukewarm on the film if they expect too much, but there’s still a lot to love here, and comparisons between this and Yuasa’s other, more lively works might lead some to not give the film its fair due.

Ride Your Wave

The action primarily follows Hinako, a scatterbrained young woman with a love of surfing. She moves to a seaside town and meets handsome firefighter Minato, who sweeps her off her feet and into a picturesque romance. A decent portion of the first act is devoted to their blossoming love, a relationship so chock full of romance and bliss that one can almost see the other shoe looming overhead, menacing passing airplanes. Sure enough, Minato tragically dies while rescuing a drowning swimmer, leaving Hinako devastated by grief. But Minato reappears as a kind of water ghost, appearing inside bodies of water whenever Hinako sings a certain tune. At first it appears as though this is their second chance, but dating a ghost made out of water turns out much harder than you’d expect.

As previously mentioned, Ride Your Wave doesn’t quite share the rhythm and tone of some of Yuasa’s other works, and it could be said that the director’s oeuvre is this film’s worst enemy. Comparing this work to previous ones like Mindgame or Tatami Galaxy will in the end only lead to disappointment, but taken entirely on its own merits, Ride Your Wave is a beautiful work of animation bolstered by a strong cast of characters. While Minato and Hisako’s romance is certainly idyllic and saccharine, it also feels very real and sincere. You can see what draws the characters to each other, as well as how they work as a couple, with their respective strengths and failings working in tandem. The relationship could have been the make or break of the film, with a shallowly developed central romance being fairly key in works like this one. Thankfully, the film sets aside enough time to help invest you in the pair, which generates enough emotional investment to help carry the rest of the work.

Ride Your Wave

On the animation front, Ride Your Wave is quite often breathtaking, combining Yuasa’s signature look of very flat, stylized character models with luscious, vibrant backgrounds to stunning effect. Some CGI effects are mixed in, but these are only rarely out of place or distracting. Again, there’s a divergence from Yuasa’s style, as seen in works like Devilman or Tatami Galaxy, but a divergence from the norm need not be a bad thing.

The harshest critics of Ride Your Wave will be those audience members expecting it to be something it isn’t — a stylistic continuation of works like The Night is Short, Walk on Girl or others of Yuasa’s more stylistically driven movies and series. But it’s important to weigh works like this on their own rather than comparing them to what came before, and when given its full due and recognized for its own merits rather than being unfairly compared to its fellows within Masaaki Yuasa’s body of work, the director’s latest can be seen as the fun, emotionally driven film it was intended to be.

The Fantasia Film Festival runs July 11 – August 1. Visit the official website for more information.

 

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Fantasia 2019: ‘1BR’ and the Horror of Community

A harrowing, unnerving, experience but one nevertheless worth having.

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*This review contains minor spoilers*

Despite their name, most horror movies evoke — or at least try to evoke — two distinct reactions: horror and terror. Terror is more visceral, more immediate, causing us to flinch and cry out when a monster or knife-wielding maniac bursts out of the darkness. Horror, on the other hand, runs a bit deeper. True horror is that feeling in the pit of your stomach when you see something deeply wrong, a subversion of the ordered way of things or pulling back of the curtain to reveal something monstrous and evil that previously appeared normal. Terror makes us recoil and averts our eyes, but when confronted with horror, it becomes almost impossible to look away. 1BR, from first-time director David Marmor, deals very explicitly in the horror side of the equation. Deeply disturbing and affecting, the film is more than likely to leave the viewer with a deep, lingering sense of dread and oppression, and a newfound mistrust of friendly strangers.

Nicole Brydon Bloom stars as Sarah, a young woman who has come to LA like so many others in search of a fresh start. She moves into an apartment complex with a seemingly friendly and outgoing roster of tenants who try and make her feel welcome. But strange noises abound in the night, and just as Sarah begins to suspect that her new home is not as idyllic as she had thought, she is plunged into a harrowing ordeal. Her neighbors reveal themselves to be a kind of cult, living an enforced communal lifestyle pioneered by a 70s self-help guru. Sarah is imprisoned in her apartment and tortured, with the end goal being indoctrination into their way of life.

1BR

1BR is a challenging film to get through, especially in the early scenes of Sarah’s capture and torment. While it isn’t as gruesome as something like Hostel or Wolf Creek, the film still devotes an amount of time to presenting our protagonist being subjected to bone-chilling cruelty. There’s a sense of utter helplessness and despair to these sequences that will leave many viewers running for the door, and that reaction is quite understandable. Watching someone be betrayed, dehumanized, and broken down both physically and psychologically is an incredibly difficult thing to watch. But it’s what comes after the more extreme sequences that the true horror begins, as Sarah learns more about her captors’ ways and secrets.

1BR is the kind of film that’s likely to leave you emotionally and physically drained.

Much of the tension in this section of the film comes from not knowing just how powerful the cult’s hold is on her. We see her early resolve to escape her horrible fate, but as time goes on it becomes harder and harder to tell where Sarah’s true loyalties lay. Much of this is thanks to the stunning performance by Nicole Brydon Bloom, who runs the gamut from utter despair and vulnerability to steely resolve, with a million shades in between. Opposite her, Taylor Nichols and Giles Matthey (among others) play the various members of the cult with sinister charm, going from friendly and welcoming to unfeeling monsters with alarming ease. In a really horrible, disturbing way, they remain charismatic even in their deepest moments of evil, and it becomes very believable that this group has brainwashed as many poor souls as it has.

1BR

For the most part, we all want a place to belong — a community that loves us and accepts us and pushes us to be the best versions of ourselves. 1BR takes this need and poses the question of what we’d be willing to endure to obtain that. Would we be willing to undergo the brutal events that befall poor Sarah? To potentially surrender a significant portion of our agency in order to find such a group? It seems like an easy question, but Marmour and his cast throw doubt into the mix — seemingly for Sarah, and in all likelihood, for much of the audience as well. Community and belonging are intoxicating things, and sometimes come at a high cost. But how high is too high? After seeing the film, you may not be so sure anymore.

1BR is the kind of film that’s likely to leave you emotionally and physically drained. It takes the viewer through a gauntlet of emotions and responses, many of them by all metrics deeply unpleasant, and because of this, it falls very firmly in the ‘not for everyone’ camp. But audience members willing to plumb the darker end of the emotional spectrum will find much to like in 1BR. It’s a harrowing, unnerving, experience, but one nevertheless worth having.

The Fantasia Film Festival runs July 11 – August 1. Visit the official website for more information.

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Fantasia 2019: ‘A Good Woman is Hard to Find’ is a Thriller to Look For

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Though at times it may seem as quiet and unassuming as its main character, A Good Woman is Hard to Find knows how to draw attention to itself at just the right moments, expertly building tension from muted scenarios before punctuating them with bloody release. Though an anticlimactic end perhaps puts too neat a bow around the otherwise messy and fascinating package, confident direction and compelling performances bolster the deliberately paced story, resulting in low-key thriller that is rarely less than gripping.

A Good Woman is Hard to Find Sarah

After an ominous prologue that hints at a violent future to come, we are introduced to single mother Sarah as she navigates the supermarket on a small budget before enduring the latest in what is undoubtedly a string of small humiliations suffered by her due to a lower-class status and the drug-related assumptions surrounding her late husband’s murder. Though clearly life-worn and tired, Sarah tries to maintain a smile even in the face of those who would look down on her, focusing on her kids, including a young son traumatized by the incident that took his father.

Even as her mother accuses her of being too soft, Sarah inwardly soldiers on, frustrated by the lack of progress with the police investigation, but generally demonstrating a non-confrontational attitude and endearing patience with her situation in life. However, her perceived wishy-washiness is put to the test when a petty crook named Tito rips off a local crime boss and breaks into Sarah’s home in order to hide. Liking the anonymous look of the place — and his ability to bully the resident — he decides that he will keep his newfound drug stash there, whether she likes it or not.

Many stories pivot upon just how far one character can be pushed, and A Good Woman is Hard to Find falls squarely into this category. When this precarious arrangement inevitably goes south, what will this mild-mannered person do to achieve some sort of cosmic balance, to assert control over their life? Well, it turns out that upon reaching her limit for tolerating everyone’s abuse, Sarah is willing to go to some pretty distant lengths in order to stand up for herself and protect what little she has — probably to her own surprise.

What separates A Good Woman is Hard to Find from much of the empowerment pack is just how skillfully it paints its picture. It’s always easy to go overboard in garnering sympathy for a sad sack by putting a halo over their head as they’re besieged by cartoonishly brutal villainy (and there’s definitely a bit of the latter here), but writer-director Abner Pastoll mostly maintains a more grounded subtlety, not afraid to understand that human beings come in shades. So, while the sadistic crime boss might not feel too out of place in a Guy Ritchie film, the rest of the characters are given dimension enough to keep viewers on their toes.

This can lead to shocking moments of tension when people are faced with crucial decisions, as we can’t be quite sure that they’ll make the ‘right’ one. Sarah is obviously sympathetic, but her mired state leaves the door open to potential weaknesses. Stealing batteries from her kids’ toys to pleasure herself or contemplating a powdery high are innocuous actions in themselves, but taken as a whole these moments suggest lines that she can be tempted to cross. Likewise, Tito brings menace into the household, yet also some odd, blue-collar levity; like most people, he actually thinks he’s a decent enough fellow. That doesn’t alleviate or excuses his despicable actions but contributes to an impending, tragic vibe that A Good Woman is Hard to Find delicately simmers with.

This feeling does eventually come to a boil in a brilliantly staged and edited event that is appropriately bloody and squirm-inducing as it depicts a literal transformation while implying a spiritual one. This scene benefits greatly from the lack of sensationalism that precedes it, and makes for a satisfying culmination of what has taken place up to this point. Unfortunately, the later tidy conclusion, while cathartic, does undermine that overall grittiness a bit, ever-so-slightly stretching credibility while at the same time undermining the complexity of Sarah’s relationship with and memory of her husband. The ease of the wrapup is a small nit to pick, to be sure, and is — given how it’s achieved — arguably restrained, but it does come across as a bit anticlimactic.

A Good Woman is Hard to Find club

Regardless, such a brief falter does not diminish the rich tension that comes before it. Anchored by Sarah Bolger’s powerful performance as a suppressed woman finally discovering what she might be capable of, and showcasing Pastoll’s confident, steady direction, A Good Woman is Hard to Find is a subtle thriller to look out for.

The Fantasia Film Festival runs July 11 – August 1. Visit the official website for more information.

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Fantasia 2019: ‘The Prey’ — is a Lean and Mean Thriller

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The Prey Review

When The Most Dangerous Game was made in 1932, it was released in the era known as “Pre-Code Hollywood,” a time when filmmakers were able to get away with sexual innuendo, illegal drug use, intense violence, homosexuality, and other taboo topics without any fear of censorship. It was the first screen adaptation of Richard Connell’s short story of the same name, and ever since, it has been adapted both officially and unofficially several times. Of the dozens of screen versions made, that original film still stands as the very best— but there have been a few decent variations worth recommending including The Naked Prey and John Woo’s first Hollywood directorial effort, the Jean-Claude Van Damme thriller Hard Target. Now, nearly 90 years later, The Prey looks to take Richard Connell’s simple premise and put its own spin on the now tried and tested action movie formula. The good news, The Prey is a jolt of pulp entertainment that will satisfy genre fans who are looking for an enjoyable way to spend 90 minutes.

The fifth feature from Jimmy Henderson (Jailbreak) takes the classic story of survival and drops it in the jungles of his adopted home of Cambodia. Our hero Xin (Gu Shangwei) is an undercover cop who accidentally finds himself locked up in a remote prison where the sadistic warden (Vithaya Pansringarm) sells prisoners as human prey for wealthy businessmen men to hunt as a form of recreation. Unsurprisingly, Xin is chosen for the event and becomes an unwitting participant in the deadly game of cat and mouse.

As far as plot goes, there isn’t much else to say since characters are thinly drawn and other minor plot strands seem irrelevant to what is otherwise a very simple premise. The Prey has one thing on its mind: action. And for what it is going for, The Prey is a lean and mean thriller that offers fans a number of stunning martial arts showcases choreographed by Jean-Paul Ly (star of Jailbreak) – and terrific cinematography from Lucas Gath who manages to shoot from unconventional angles and places the camera as close as possible to the action while never once confusing the audience. Henderson never lets the pace falter either and captures some brutal hand-to-hand combat which makes great use of a wide array of makeshift weaponry. The Prey isn’t a triumph of fight choreography like say The Raid, but it is relentless and features some memorable scenes including an impressive extended single-take and a notably balls-to-the-wall prison brawl. Veteran Thai actor Vithaya Pansringarm (Only God Forgives) is by far the most experienced performer on display but newcomer Gu Shangwei somehow manages to steal the show. For a first-time acting gig, Shangwei’s charisma and overall likeability make him a star on the rise.

The Prey Movie Review

What The Prey lacks in story and character development, it makes up for in suspense and genuine thrills. The spectacle of flying fists, deadly kicks, ricocheting bullets and spurting blood is just enough to recommend. It has been nearly nine decades since Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack shocked audiences with The Most Dangerous Game. Times have changed. Technology has advanced and filmmakers have easier ways to capture some truly electrifying action scenes but that doesn’t mean they always get it right. But like that classic, The Prey is constructed with hardly an ounce of fat as the filmmakers waste no time establishing the basic premise within the first few minutes and getting right to the bleeding heart of the film. It might be a mindless action movie but of the many big-screen adaptations, very few of those films boast the level of craft on display here. 

  • Ricky D

The Fantasia Film Festival runs July 11 – August 1. Visit the official website for more information.

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Fantasia 2019: ‘No Mercy’ is Amusing but has No Mercy for Restraint

The action is consistently solid if not always spectacular, the lead actress is a terrific gem, yet so much else comes across as though the filmmakers…never stopped to consider if perhaps they were pushing the envelope too far.

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Choosing to make a film in which the primary character or the character from whom the endeavour’s plot evolves is mentally challenged is not a decision made lightly. Certainly expression of beliefs and themes through cinema should not be shackled by restrictive measures, be they legally enforced or socially accepted constructs. That said, some topics require a more confident touch, a firm directorial hand that possesses cinematic know-how and common sense to tread carefully. Having seen the most recent South Korean revenge action flick No Mercy, the jury is still out as to whether or not director Lim Kyeong-taek is such a capable director.

Park In-ae (Lee Si-young) has just been released from prison for protecting her younger sister Eun-hye (Park Se-wan) from an aggressor in rather extreme fashion. However honourable her intentions, the courts saw fit that her actions justified the penalty, but now that the sisters are joined again, all in the world is calm and perfect, save of course for the additional burden of Eun-hye’s mild intellectual disability, encouraging In-ae to be especially protective of her sibling. In a stunning case of Murphy’s Law, a small group of bullying teens at school circuitously get poor Eun-hye involved in petty theft by using her as a would-be sex slave. Sadly, the problems have only just begun, as some really nasty people get involved as well, even kidnapping Eun-hye with the intention of selling her off as a real sex slave to a local congressman (Park Young-choon). Thank our lucky stars that In-ae happens to be one of the best martial artists in the country, ready to save the sister Taken from her.

No Mercyis a strange beast of a film. The film takes itself quite seriously, a fairly evident statement judging by the tone permeating the first act. Some of the banter between In-ae and Eun-hye serves to establish their strong bond, yet there is no mistaking that the director wants to fully commit to the potential dramatic richness the story holds. Is there a sense that the picture is taking the easy route with how the plot is set up? Yes, there definitely is. On the flip side, everybody heading into No Mercyknows what they’ve paid to see, which is not a heartfelt story of sibling bonding by overcoming the trials and tribulations attributed to mental handicaps. This is revenge thriller, so whatever serves set the stage competently will do just fine, and competent the opening act is.

It feels impossible that the viewer will predict the many twists and turns the story takes. To put it bluntly, Lim Kyeong-taek’s storytelling decisions make what could have been a serviceable action thriller into a gonzo misadventure that virtually prides itself on how many different ways it ups the ante. Keep in mind however that nothing is played for laughs, at least not intentionally. Unfortunately, some of the revelations are so jaw-dropping for their audacity and lunacy that some will not be able to hold back some chuckles. Of course, no major plot details shall be divulged in throughout this review, although it is extremely tempting to write about a few of them, if only to make the reader understand how bonkers No Mercy’s second half is.  

Truly, this is a case of a movie finding inspiration in a legitimately sad, touching situation and tossing the characters in the mud so mercilessly and repetitively that at some point it actually becomes more difficult to take the picture seriously. Twists are exercised with the mistaken ambition of adding tension and drama. To be perfectly honest, in another movie said plot machinations might dutifully serve that purpose, helping to heighten the experience. Here however the tone feels off, as if the film is trying too hard to make In-ae and especially Eun-hye’s predicament all the harsher and more desperate. The theatricality of the performances from the actors portraying the villains of the piece, Park Young-choon, and Han-Sang-man, make their parts to despicable, so risible, they too, in fact, add to the challenge of taking the movie completely seriously. 

The anchor preserving an air of seriousness is unquestionably lead actress Lee Si-young. She invests everything she has in making In-ae a terrifying personality to cross all the while retaining an aura of humanity and believability. In a sea of cartoonish acting, Lee is the one participant that dedicated herself to taking the material as seriously as possible. In another film, such stark contrast might spoil the fun, yet here her passion for the role helps balance out the tone, at least as much as a movie like this can be balanced at all.

Furthermore, even though few will put No Mercy’s action set pieces on par with the best Jet Li or Donnie Yen romps, there are a few truly impressive sequences in which the lead actress and her co-stars throw themselves full-throttle into nasty fisticuffs. The film’s highlight in that regard is a brief but no less inspiring tussle from the inside of a car, with the camera floating around the vehicle as it captures the action from through the front, side, and back windows. 

When the dust settles, viewers will be left to ponder what incarnations happened during the production. The action is consistently solid if not always spectacular, the lead actress is a terrific gem and helps provide the entire project with some gravitas, yet so much else comes across as though the filmmakers were deeply convinced of the richness and power of the plots beats they added onto the pile but never stopped to consider if perhaps they were pushing the envelope too far. At the risk of using a terrible pun whilst quoting a popular comedy, never go full retard. 

The Fantasia Film Festival runs July 11 – August 1. Visit the official website for more information.

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Goomba Stomp is the joint effort of a team of like-minded writers from across the globe. We provide smart readers with sharp, entertaining writing on a wide range of topics in pop culture, offering an escape from the usual hype and gossip.

Contact us: Editor@GoombaStomp.com

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