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Film Festival

‘High Life’ Upends Sci-Fi Conventions

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published September 15, 2018, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival. 

After the Toronto premiere of Claire Denis’ new film, High Life, critics rushed to post about its most extreme and bizarre moments on Twitter, mostly in an ecstatic manner. Besides being a display of public awe, the early micro-impressions helpfully illustrated the difference between a good science fiction film and a great science fiction film: good science fiction finds fascinating new ways to depict things we’ve already imagined, but great science fiction is concerned with the sort of ideas we’ve never even contemplated. High Life, her first English-language feature, is a stunning achievement for Denis, one that violently expands the conventions of the genre, and further evidence of her restless vision.

Like Andrei Tarkovsky, Denis doesn’t bother with the standard details — we never find out what year her film is set in, and the very recognizable Earth flashbacks are incongruous with the dingy yet futuristic space scenes that make up the bulk of the film. In this unnamed future time, convicts on Earth who have been sentenced to death have been given the option to fly into space to participate in scientific missions. If they die, it’s not much different than their fate on Earth, but if they survive long enough they have the chance to return knowing they’ve done a service to humanity. Except that it’s quickly revealed that this is all a lie. The convicts will never return to Earth, either because it’s not feasible, or because they’re no longer wanted.

Robert Pattinson adds another adventurous role to his resume as Monte, who has been imprisoned since he was a young boy. It’s not giving anything away to reveal that he is the lone survivor of a drifting spacecraft — well, him and a young baby. The ship has sailed for years toward the nearest black hole to Earth; the mission is to determine if there is a way to harness energy from the sucking maw. There used to be many other crew members, including a scientist (a wonderfully eerie Juliette Binoche) who performs fertility experiments on the convicts, an impetuous young woman who becomes her guinea pig (Mia Goth), and a laid-back prisoner who seems resigned to his fate (an underused André Benjamin).

Like Kubrick, Denis delights in the slowness of life in space; she wants us to consider every extended moment and what years of this repetition could do to a person.

High Life - Claire Denis

Denis’ vision of space travel in High Life has clear connections to the grungy design of Alien (1979). The equipment still works fairly well, but in a few years things will look as beat up as the interior of the Nostromo. Denis has also praised the work of Tarkovsky and Stanley Kubrick in interviews, and their influence is unmistakable. Like Kubrick, Denis delights in the slowness of life in space; she wants us to consider every extended moment and what years of this repetition could do to a person. And like Tarkovsky, she imbues her characters with great passions, but often leaves them hidden behind stoic faces that require the audience to interpret their feelings.

Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography finds great beauty in what might otherwise be an asylum of fluorescent lights, turning what could have been a very ugly film into something quite beautiful. In a scene that may have been inspired by Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973), Binoche visits what Denis refers to as the “fuck box,” a self-pleasuring device that the crew visits to let off steam. Le Saux photographs Binoche in a faint purplish light that emphasizes her long black hair — it streams all the way down her back like a cascade of spiders. Binoche’s witch-like doctor seems more humane in the fluorescent light when she carries on her fertility experiments, but in the box, she can be seen in her true light.

Pattinson, though, is clearly the star of the film, and he wisely does as little as possible in that capacity. The last few years have been filled with adventurous and remarkable career choices for Pattinson, and his great strength is knowing when to turn down the temperature. In his last great performance, Good Time (2017), Pattinson was most moving in his restrained scenes with his intellectually-disabled brother, and in High Life, he practices an even greater degree of restraint. It would be easy for an actor to pull out all the stops with Denis’ bonkers story, but it’s far more compelling when they keep the energy low, as if they have been desensitized to everything around them.

High Life

Despite the more obvious science fiction homages, the movie High Life most feels akin to is Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013). The stories have nothing in common plot-wise, but Denis’ movie has a painful undercurrent of sorrow that occasionally peaks out above the menace, much like that film. Like Scarlett Johansson’s asexual alien, Pattinson and his fellow prisoners are starving for human connection and love. The closet Johansson got was luring lonely men to their deaths, but she never made a real connection. The prisoners in space are also desperate for connection, but they mostly resort to the sex box, and even when they do have sex it’s violent and ugly. Pattinson lives a life of chastity as if he knows the possibility of love is futile in the cold sterility of space.

I’ve seen many great films so far at TIFF, but none have made me want to watch them all over again as strongly as High Life. I just want to bathe in its cosmic glow a little longer.

 

‘High Life’ Upends Sci-Fi Conventions

Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema's Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He's a graduate of USC's master's program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at InPraiseofCinema.com. Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear." Totally worth it.

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Fantasia Film Festival

‘Ready or Not‘ Derives a Fair Amount of Mileage out of its Simple Premise

A rich family hunt the bride in a very bloody game of Hide And Seek

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Making its World Premiere at the Montreal genre festival, Ready or Not is a blood-spattered, tongue-in-cheek horror comedy that features plenty of gore and a sense of humour as dark as the terror on display.

Anyone who has seen the trailer is already familiar with the simple premise. What is best described as a cross between The Most Dangerous Game and Clue, Ready or Not stars Samara Weaving as Grace, a young bride who marries into the wealthy but strange Le Domas family that made their fortune in the board game industry. When it comes time to consummate the union, the bride is told that the marriage won’t be complete until she participates in an unusual family ritual: before the strike of midnight, the newlywed bride must draw a card from a mysterious box which will dictate which game they play into the night. Grace pulls the one-and-only cursed card that reads “Hide and Seek.” But this isn’t the traditional children’s game we are familiar with; in this deadly version, she is hunted by her soon-to-be-revealed psychotic in-laws wielding heavy weaponry like crossbows and shotguns.

A surreal cat-and-mouse chase ensues, with Alex ostensibly trying to help his bride survive while the rest of the La Domas clan remains dead-set on sacrificing her through the mysterious ritual. Their motive is simple: the La Domas believe that they must kill her before dawn as part of a satanic pact agreed upon years ago, otherwise they will have to repay their debt with their own lives. As to whether or not there actually is a satanic pact is unknown; as far as Grace is concerned, these rich folks are batshit crazy and out of their goddamned minds.

Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, who are collectively credited as Radio Silence (V/H/S, Southbound), Ready or Not has a lot to offer in wit, style, and entertainment. It feels tailor-made for a midnight audience, as the bloodthirsty relatives arm themselves to the teeth in a wedding night filled with crossbows, shotguns, decapitations, a car chase, and a level of gore I didn’t expect given the marketing. The climax is especially memorable — an all-out gore extravaganza that left the audience laughing hysterically.

There’s a lot to like here, from the score by composer Brian Tyler to the cinematography by Brett Jutkiewicz, but the reason this film works so well is because of the talented cast they’ve assembled, most notably Alex’s alcoholic brother, Daniel (Adam Brody), who serves as the family’s moral core. And of course there’s also Samara Weaving, (Mayhem, The Babysitter) who pretty much sacrifices her body in blood-soaked scenes of action and terror. The actress is fully dedicated in her role, turning into her own version of Ripley while tearing apart the upper-class society, their ridiculous traditions, and their silly superstitions.

I don’t want to oversell Ready or Not; it’s a great B-movie (albeit a big studio B-Movie, but a B-movie nonetheless). The quick pace, simple concept, and terrific performances are what carry it through the 95-minute run time. Ready or Not is simply put, a lot of fun — a horror-comedy that offers a ton of laughs, delivers the action, and cements the star power of Samara Weaving. The best compliment I can give is that I’m ready to see it again. It’s the perfect movie to watch with a group of friends on a stormy night, and a late-summer surprise for genre fans everywhere.

  • Ricky D

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 25, 2019, as part of our coverage of the  Fantasia Film Festival.

 

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Fantasia Film Festival

Beautiful ‘Shadow’ Stands Out

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As a sort of somber Shakespearean political melodrama, Zhang Yimou’s Shadow sometimes feels a bit too overplotted, with enough self restraint and looks of longing to make it feel claustrophobic, and so many schemes and betrayals that the script almost gets dazed among them. However, as a fantastical period piece — decked out in luscious trappings and painterly compositions, and bolstered by passionate performances and balletic battles with umbrellas made of blades — the experience fares better, resulting in a look at ancient intrigue that always manages to entertain one way or another.

A brief bit of opening text sets the stage for a precarious peace between two lands — the kingdom of Pei, and the kingdom of Yang, the latter of which currently occupies the city of Jing, much to Pei’s dismay. When the renowned Commander of Pei strikes a deal with Yang’s unbeatable warrior king to compete in a one-on-one duel for the fate of the city, he is rebuked by his own ruler, and stripped of his title, demoted to a mere commoner. However, it is secretly revealed that the man acting as the Commander is actually a lookalike named Jingzhou, captured in his youth and bound to serve as ‘shadow’ to the true Commander — who is still recovering from near-mortal wounds from a previous encounter — in case of threats to his life.

This sickly Commander confines himself to an underground cavern beneath the city, and relentlessly trains Jingzhou in order to uphold the subterfuge, even going so far as to give him similar scars. All the while, he plots to retake Jing and assume Pei’s throne, promising to free Jingzhou from his duty upon victory. Of course, this being a royal court, there are any number of Machiavellian conspirators, each setting wheels in motions that surely will collide. This includes a weaselly king, a fiery princess, a sniveling courtier, and the Commander’s wife, Xiao Ai, who plays along with her husband’s maneuvers, but may be falling for his more honorable ‘shadow.’

Those who casually wander into this inter-kingdom squabble will no doubt soon become as lost as these ancient civilizations themselves, but despite the gravity with which the various players detail their plans, the importance of what they’re saying is mostly smoke and mirrors; sure, the duplicity stacked upon duplicity is mildly diverting, but it’s also shallow and devoid of meaningful motivation; so do the myriad of machinations in Shadow really matter? Not when there are plenty of other things to hold one’s interest.

Chiefly among those elements is the sumptuous look of every frame. Working with a relatively small canvas, director Zhang Yimou has carefully composed grandiose images filled with nuanced staging, deliberate movement, and indelibly rich texture. His choices give otherwise modest engagements an epic feel, and not just in moments where swords are flashed. Conversations become mini-wars in themselves, as he zeroes his camera in on the meticulous exchanges between the main players of his power game, their precisely worded responses and subtle facial expressions acting out aggressive thrusts and parries in word form, often cutting just as deep as any knife. 

One need not understand the spoken particulars to get the general idea, and Shadow actually communicates better through the clarity of its visuals. Each guarded step or confident tilt of the head feels deliberately choreographed, as if part of deadly dance. And instead of overloading the screen with period detail, sets are clean, populated only with objects of significance. This laser focus allows for minute aspects that otherwise may have been overlooked in clutter to factor prominently, especially when Zhang Yimou holds his shots so patiently.

And it must have easy for him to do so with a cast as magnetic as this. Deng Chao does double duty as the Commander and Jingzhou, but creates characters so disparate that you’d be forgiven for thinking they bear no resemblance whatsoever. He manages bitter and reptilian just as easy as dutiful and courageous, showing how life has affected these two men, tied together by a facade, in vastly different ways. Sun Li as Xiao Ai nobly hides her torn affections behind expressive eyes that should reveal more than they do; everyone is playing the game. Zheng Kai and Guan Xiaotong round things out nicely as the deceitful king and his more straightforward, honest sister, who challenges any threats to honor.

Shadow 2019 Film Review

They are eminently watchable, completely up to the task of holding down the fort even when besieged by layers of backstabbing that would require a more talented contortionist than the script is capable of. That’s Shadow itself; from one-on-one political maneuvers to an entertainingly inventive battle involving hundreds, there is almost always something splendid to soak in, even if it makes your head spin.

Editor’s Note: This review was originally published on July 25th as part of our Fantasia Film Festival coverage. Shadow is now available in Canada on Digital, DVD, and Blu-ray.

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‘Nekrotronic’ Sells its Soul to Monica Bellucci

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Some movies are just so hard to grasp that trying to do so would be futile. In some instances, that can be used to a film’s advantage, such as Kiah Roache-Turner’s 2014 debut, Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead, in which explanations didn’t really matter. Understanding what was happening in that film wasn’t the point; it was just about accepting the ride. That’s the same strategy employed in the director’s 2018 follow-up, Nekrotronic, a supernatural social media haunt that opts for the same deprivation of logic for the sake of a fun B-movie romp.

Co-written with his brother, Tristan, the script takes a kitchen-sink approach to the insane story of demons possessing humans through social media. As the eternal fight between Nekromancers and demons rages on, they’ve become locked in a new type of cyber warfare. An app being designed by a soulless corporation of human husks is overseen by the Queen of the Underworld herself (played by the always incredible Monica Bellucci), and acts a lot like Pokemon Go — but as users find ghosts instead of Pokemon, they unknowingly give their souls to the underworld. And so,  the fate of all mankind now rests on the shoulders of a sanitation worker (Ben O’Toole) and his best friend (Epine Bob Savea).

Nekrotronic is about kicking ass and filling the screen with as much gore and high-tech weaponry as possible.

This Ozploitation film tries really hard to give explanations to virtually everything it introduces, and that’s an admirable effort in a story that very clearly doesn’t care that much. It’s Ghostbusters with a little bit of They Live, and an aesthetic that feels like the video game Doom more than any movie in recent memory. There are 3D-printing demon souls and giant lasers, wraiths, and ghosts that travel through the internet like it’s a series of tubes, and a refusal to stop introducing new conceits. That Nekrotronic has logic presented at all is like if the Alien movies tried to give motivation for the xenomorph attacking its prey — endearing to attempt, but so very unnecessary.

Nekrotronic

That is the major issue that plagues Nekrotronic. The Roache-Turner brothers want to do everything, but by doing everything it’s easy to lose focus on the central conceit — which is hard to pinpoint, because there are so many small emotional beats that are all treated like huge deals at various times. There’s not even really much in the form of a social commentary on our reliance with social media and technology; Nekromancers once put demon souls into the internet as a form of containment, and then didn’t realize that the Queen of Hell would discover a way to use the internet to release the demons. That’s a neat genre explanation that could be mined for more of a critique on apps that data mine and do more harm than we really realize, but unfortunately, the movie only passively mentions this point, then walks away from it immediately.

Instead, Nekrotronic is about kicking ass and filling the screen with as much gore and high-tech weaponry as possible. The cyber-horror aesthetic lends itself really well to the narrative; while it very much looks like a B-movie, it looks like a B-movie with a budget. The visuals are also very vibrant and filled with more colour than Wyrmwood, which is justification for a more riotous feeling — and the really bad jokes support that spirit.

nekrotronic

But the ultimate reason to sit through this very boring, exhaustive assault on the senses is for Monica Bellucci. She chews scenery, whether it’s for the benefit of comedy or horror; no one else comes close. If Nekrotronic did anything really right, it was casting Bellucci as a demon from Hell that says phrases like “No more Mrs. Nice Guy” as she tries to come off motherly, seductive, and terrifying at the same time. If there’s one thing to take away from this film, it’s that the Roache-Turner brothers are hellbent on telling entertaining stories — they just missed the bar with this demonic affair.

Editor’s note: This review was originally published on September 8, 2018 as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival. 

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TIFF

What to Watch Out For at TIFF 2019

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Upon its founding in 1976, the Toronto International Film Festival was originally known as the Toronto Festival of Festivals. Implied in the name was TIFF’s status as a clearinghouse for the best festival films of the year. Cannes and Venice might be able to attract bigger premieres from the world’s leading auteurs, and Sundance might have the market cornered on formulaic-yet-quirky dramedies, but Toronto would bring the best of each festival to North American residents who might not feel like hopping on a plane to the South of France.

Over the years, TIFF has grown to be a powerhouse among film festivals, not only selecting high-profile films that were first shown elsewhere, but also offering a bevy of its own prestigious premieres. So far, only the Gala and Special Presentation screenings have been announced, but they represent the movies most likely to cause a stir. Below are a sampling of the films you’ll want to seek out in Toronto.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

You wouldn’t be wrong to be puzzled about the existence of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Didn’t we just get a Mr. Rogers movie, after all? Well, yes, and Morgan Neville’s 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor charmed critics and left audiences misty-eyed. This new narrative feature is clearly trying to ride the wave of acclaim that followed the documentary, but it’s the creative team that makes this one worth watching. The director, Marielle Heller, is responsible for last year’s Melissa McCarthy dramedy Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a scathing yet poignant look into the life of a once-prominent writer who has sunk to forging the letters of famous authors to make a living. It was one of 2018’s best (and most underrated) films, opening up the possibility that Heller might strike gold twice in a row. Tom Hanks doesn’t look much like Mr. Rogers, even in makeup and costume, but there’s a good chance Heller will still extract just the right performance out of him. (Brian Marks)

Ema

Ema

Pablo Larrain had a banner year in 2016, when he released both Jackie and Neruda. The former offered a nuanced portrait of grief in the public eye, as well as one of Natalie Portman’s greatest performances. The latter, rather than being a standard biopic, mixed biographical elements with a metaphysical detective story that elevated the project. Now Larrain returns with Ema. There’s not much to go on about the new film, which is described as being about a woman who attempts to restart her life in the wake of a family tragedy, but Larrain’s ability to shake up even rote material makes it worth watching. (Brian Marks)

The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch

Another literary adaptation, Donna Tartt’s 2013 novel The Goldfinch arrived eleven years after her last book, and quickly caused a stir. Though it polarized critics, the iconoclastic author found a new appreciation among readers, who turned the book into a bestseller. Baby Driver’s Ansel Elgort stars as Theo Drecker, whose mother was killed in a terrorist bombing when he was a child while visiting New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Amid the confusion and shock, Theo takes The Goldfinch, a painting by Carel Fabritius, the most gifted student of Rembrandt (who himself was killed in an explosion). Though he’s taken in by a wealthy socialite (Nicole Kidman), Theo is drawn into a world of crime years later as the result of his theft. Directed by John Crowley, who helmed part of the underrated second season of True Detective and the lovely Brooklyn, this adaption looks as if it might thread the needle between the novel’s thriller aspects and its emotional charge. (Brian Marks)

Marriage Story

Marriage Story

It’s impossible to view Noah Baumbach’s newest film, Marriage Story, through anything other than a personal lens. Starring Scarlett Johansson and Baumbach favorite Adam Driver as an actress and a playwright going through a difficult divorce following the birth of their first child, it’s uncomfortably close to Baumbach’s own divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh, shortly after they had their own child (and reportedly after he had already started seeing his current partner, Greta Gerwig). It’s unclear if he’ll mine the same dramedy territory of his first masterpiece, The Squid and the Whale, or if he’ll stick more to drama for this one, but it’s bound to be an essential work from one of our greatest living writers and directors. If you’re not able to catch it at Venice or Toronto, fear not — Netflix will be releasing the movie, just as it did Baumbach’s last film, The Meyerowitz Stories. (Brian Marks)

Motherless Brooklyn

Following 2000’s forgotten Keeping the Faith, Edward Norton seemed to have given up any itch to direct. In reality, he’s been working behind the scenes for almost twenty years to adapt Jonathan Lethem’s National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel, Motherless Brooklyn. The detective thriller was a watershed for Lethem, who found a way to retain the absurd postmodernism of his early novels while creating characters of real emotional density. In addition to writing and directing, Norton will star as Lionel Essrog, an orphan who’s compelled to spit out nonsensical utterances thanks to his Tourette Syndrome. He’s eventually drafted by a mobster-adjacent figure into a low-rent detective service. But when that mentor is stabbed to death, Essrog goes in search of his killer. Lethem’s moving and blisteringly funny novel deserves a sense of style as developed as the novelist’s, and though Norton doesn’t have a track record himself, he has worked with some of the greatest directors out there. Hopefully, some of their style rubbed off on him. (Brian Marks)

Uncut Gems

Uncut Gems

Adam Sandler is a great actor whose talents can only be unlocked by great directors. Aside from some of his early comedy classics, it’s when he’s working with auteurs like Paul Thomas Anderson (Punch Drunk Love) or Noah Baumbach (The Meyerowitz Stories) or even James L. Brooks (Spanglish) that he can really shine. Directed by Benny and Josh Safdie, who directed one of 2017’s best films, Good Time, Uncut Gems stars Sandler as a jeweler looking to score it big. TIFF’s artistic director, Cameron Bailey, said the film is “probably the most Safdie movie you’ve ever seen,” and is “cranked up to 11 the whole time” while speaking to IndieWire. If anyone can bring Sandler back to the heights he’s occasionally reached, the Safdies can. The movie is also co-written by Ronald Bronstein, who’s collaborated on many of their films, as well as starred in Daddy Longlegs, so the whole gang is back together. (Brian Marks)

Knives Out

Knives Out

While the internet will have you believe that Rian Johnson is one of the worst directors in Hollywood after he “ruined” Star Wars with Episode VIII, he is in fact still allowed to make movies. And at this year’s TIFF, he is set to make a huge splash at the festival much in the way his previous films Looper and The Brothers Bloom did before. Making its world premiere in Toronto, Knives Out ditches the science fiction epic for a new take on the whodunit genre, with the promise of twists and turns, and a cast more than ready to duke it out against each other. Daniel Craig leads an investigation into a group of suspects potentially guilty of murdering a wealthy crime novelist (Christopher Plummer). That group of suspects includes Chris Evans, Toni Collette, Don Johnson, Jamie Lee Curties, and Michael Shannon. The first trailer for Knives Out is electrifying, from Chris Evans telling off each character to the absolute cattiness of Toni Collette, and there is no doubt that this will be one of the bigger films of the festival. Unsurprisingly, it looks like a surefire hit for audiences, and a likely contender for the festival’s People’s Choice award. (Christopher Cross)

Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit

Another famed indie director who made it huge with an established franchise is Taika Waititi. Though What We Do In The Shadows has a large following and received plenty of praise as TIFF’s Midnight Madness People’s Choice award winner in 2014 (while also enjoying life as a TV spin-off for FX), there is no denying that Thor: Ragnarok has given the New Zealand director more opportunities. While he’s now set to write and direct the next Thor film, Waititi is bringing a more controversial movie to this year’s TIFF for its world premiere. Jojo Rabbit follows a young German boy (Roman Griffin Davis) who finds a Jewish girl in his home and seeks advice from his imaginary friend on how to handle the situation. The catch is that the imaginary friend is not a cute animal or character…but Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi himself).

In anyone else’s hands this would sound like a disastrous idea, but this is Waititi we’re talking about. Billed as an “anti-hate satire,” it is clear that Waititi won’t pull any punches with the subject matter. However, he’s also putting a lot of the onus on himself to make Hitler ‘fun’ by casting himself in the role. The cast includes Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Scarlett Johansson, and Thomasin McKenzie, but this looks like it might be more of a two-hander much in the vein of Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople. The first teaser trailer has plenty of laughs, but also shows a lot of why this could go either way. It’s a must-see for fans of all of Waititi’s previous films, but it’ll be interesting to see how it plays to more general audiences. (Christopher Cross)

The Personal History of David Copperfield

The Personal History of David Copperfield

Armando Iannucci’s criminally underseen The Death of Stalin proved that anything Iannucci touches is bound to be hilarious. While his political satire has never been sharper than in almost everything else he’s done, The Personal History of David Copperfield promises a witty take on the life of Charles Dickens. Based on the autobiographical novel David Copperfield by Dickens, it’s the potential of an Iannucci film to be biting while highlighting the absurdity of the time period that will likely please most audiences. With The Death of Stalin, Veep, The Thick of It, and In the Loop, Iannucci has always gotten the best out of his casts, often elevating his already great writing. The Personal History of David Copperfield stars Dev Patel, but it’s the supporting cast that raises excitement for the film even more. Peter Capaldi, Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Ben Whishaw, and Gwendoline Christie all round out the cast. The movie feels like a safe bet at the minimum, but it depends how much Iannucci mines out of his cast and the source material that will dictate the film’s success on the festival circuit. (Christopher Cross)

Joker

Joker

Okay, let’s be honest here. Comic book movies don’t really need to go into the festival circuit. They do well enough on their own, and the only reason to pull something like this is because awards season buzz starts at festival time. Why get shunned by the festival crowd when you can get included in the conversation by virtue of just being there? That being said, Todd Phillips’ Joker is one such film that doesn’t look like a big flashy blockbuster that will make a ton of money just by existing. This origin story for Batman’s most notorious antagonist looks stripped down, dark, and appropriately moody. It also has Joaquin Phoenix playing the titular role. If anyone is going to push the potential for awards buzz, it’s Phoenix, who is almost always in the Best Actor conversation, even if it’s rarely a guaranteed lock.

The film also features a cast that includes Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Shea Whigham, and Brian Tyree Henry (who has been rather unstoppable in his acting choices). Joker sounds like everything that would appeal to the awards season circuit, if it was anything other than a comic book movie — which is likely why it is here. All signs point to it being a potentially great character study, but its in the hands of Phillips, who has not had the greatest track record, and has virtually no evidence in his filmography to support the idea that this could be good. But the trailers have looked promising, and you wouldn’t know it to be a Phillips movie unless you looked it up. Consider this one of the most intriguing films to play at TIFF this year. (Christopher Cross)

The Laundromat

The Laundromat

Steven Soderbergh took a break from filmmaking only to come back just as hard-working as ever. This year he has already released the magnificent High Flying Bird, and the much-more-anticipated The Laundromat is now making its North American premiere at TIFF this September. Starring Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, and Antonio Banderas, there isn’t much room for second-guessing the awards chances of this movie. Unless it’s an absolute dud (which based on Soderbergh’s track record, is highly unlikely), this will likely be a huge awards contender for Streep and Oldman.

What will make it a likely hit with festival audiences is not just its cast and crew, but the subject its tackling. Soderbergh takes his aim at the Panama Papers leak from 2015, which exposed an abundance of fraud and tax evasion from wealthy individuals through offshore financial corporations. It’s a topic ready for Soderbergh to target, and rife with material that should keep it gripping at a brisk 96-minute runtime. At the very least, Soderbergh has a way with dialogue and making character interactions sizzle on-screen which helps keep the excitement for The Laundromat high. (Christopher Cross)

The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse

Who are we kidding — The Witch was too incredible of a debut from Robert Eggers for anyone not to be excited about his sophomore feature. The Lighthouse promises the same kind of atmospheric intensity as Eggers’ debut film, which played huge at TIFF; this will undoubtedly play to the same effect. Starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as lighthouse keepers on an island in New England in the 19th century, the movie tracks their gradual descent into madness. Shot on 35mm black-and-white film, The Lighthouse is being billed as a psychological thriller, and if anyone is not 100% sold on everything mentioned above, then there’s not much more that can be said. Everything paints this as an exciting, dread-filled follow up to The Witch. Seeing Eggers move from the 17th-century to 19th-century still promises a heavy emphasis on period, which will likely feed into the atmosphere. And then there’s that intensifying paranoia that sounds like it will be in full effect here as well. Consider this another guaranteed hit at the festival. (Christopher Cross)

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Fantasia Film Festival

Fantasia 2019: ‘Harpoon’ is ‘Dead Calm’ meets ‘Alive’

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Harpoon is best described as Dead Calm meets Alive. It follows Jonah (Munro Chambers), Sasha (Emily Tyra), and Richard (Christopher Gray)— a trio of unlikable friends with some serious issues who do horrible things to one another for roughly eighty-two minutes.

After Richard, the son of a mob boss suspects his best friend Jonah and long-time girlfriend Sasha are having an affair, it sends him into an uncontrollable rage that leaves Jonah a bruised and bloody mess. Only it seems Richard is wrong (or so they say), and after convincing Richard the allegations are false, Richard invites them on his family’s yacht to celebrate his birthday. It was meant to be a fun day trip in order to win back their trust but as tensions boil and the yacht’s engine fails, Richard’s anger management issues kick in and his birthday present (a speargun mistaken for a harpoon) becomes a threat. Stranded without food, drinking water, and other supplies, their only hope of survival is to set aside their differences and work together. But as secrets continue to be revealed and accusations are made, it seems this fuc*ed-up trio has little to no hope of ever reaching land alive.

Harpoon Movie Review

At its core, Harpoon is really a film about friendship, albeit a toxic friendship between three young adults who have drifted apart but somehow remain bound only by the amount of time they’ve known each other. When the trio are left stranded in the middle of the ocean, both their friendships and their lives are tested in excruciating ways. Rob Grant and co-screenwriter Mike Kovac’s script features an unseen narrator (Brett Gelman) who offers insight into the interpersonal background of the trio along with a clever and amusing history lesson about sailors and their superstitions. It seems the uncontrollable nature of the sea has given way to many a nautical lore, each one as curious as the next and Harpoon dives deep into these myths and legends feeding us snippets of info during a swift montage. As the plot twists, and turns (of which it does plenty), the trio realizes they’ve jinxed themselves in a barrage of ways. As they wait in hopes that someone will come to their rescue, they pass the time looking for ways to survive while discussing stories such as Edgar Allan Poe’s novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket and the true tale of Richard Parker, whose life at sea unbelievably mirrored the plot of Poe‘s writing which was released 50 years earlier.

Harpoon Movie Review

For what is essentially a horror film shot on a single location, director Rob Grant does a superb job in delivering a nasty little thriller. In spite of the short running time and limited claustrophobic setting, Grant keeps the film interesting with his camera choices and clever editing. As the film progresses the camerawork slowly draws in ever tighter on the three leads heightening the suspense at key moments while also further adding to the claustrophobic feel. It really is impressive how much mileage the filmmakers get when working with so little.

Held together by three impressive performances, Harpoon deftly plays with our emotions as we become less and less sympathetic to the trio, no matter what horrible things they may be experiencing. What makes Harpoon different than your average survival thriller is how it continuously encourages the audience to laugh at the series of unfortunate events. No matter how deceitful, violent and psychotic these three friends are, Harpoon somehow manages to remain darkly funny.

I must once again stress how annoying these characters are and because of this, Harpoon is a film I admire more than I enjoyed. Often the trio’s bickering is exhausting to sit through and despite a running commentary on toxic masculinity and male insecurity, Harpoon eventually runs out of steam— or rather, is left with no more wind in its sails. In the end, these terrible human beings couldn’t be any more deserving of each other but I can’t say I enjoyed their company.

  • Ricky D

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. We are currently looking for Film, TV, Anime and Comic writers.

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