Fantasia 2021: Capsule Reviews

April Story

April Story. Dir. Shunji Iwai.

There is a scene in April Story where Uzuki (Takako Matsu, who is perfect) watches a samurai movie in the cinema. It’s Kagemusha (1980), said my mind. We want to find material connections watching something. The story is Kagemusha. The style is Kurosawa’s. But it’s not Kagemusha nor Kurosawa. We spend several minutes with it, a movie within a movie, one we would even want to watch outside of it. The incredible thing is: the samurai movie was created for the film. Shunji Iwai really did that and with equal attention and craft as he has paid to the actual film of it all. Uzuki is accosted at the theater by a boy who just wants to be closer to her, she cannot even find peace in the sanctuary of the theater. The film comes back to this later and pays it off. Incredible filmmaking. I feel a pang of guilt when an older film is the best material I’ve seen from a festival — surely I’m here to uncover new things and help spread the word about them — but sometimes an old film opens up your worldview, deepens your total understanding of all film, and encourages even further examination. That’s April Story, an ode to young adult alienation and the journey of finding ourselves when we first leave home, that wants us to feel whole and connected again, even if it’s just to understand that other people feel the same way. Everyone eventually finds out what it is to be alone but the movies can help put us back together. STEPHEN GILLESPIE

Dear Hacker

Dear Hacker. Dir. Alice Lenay

Have you ever looked at the camera built into one of your devices and wondered if you are being watched? This documentary is about that. Filmmaker, Alice Lenay, notices the light next to her webcam come on, seemingly at random, and starts to wonder if she is being hacked. This leads her to start video calls with people discussing internet security and wider philosophy. The film is presented purely as video chats: we see them freeze, disconnect and lose resolution. This makes it a good fit for watching on a laptop, which adds to the themes of voyeurism. The cleverest part of the film is the fact that it is people talking on seemingly private video chats about the possibility of always being watched, while you watch them. This one idea has a greater impact than anything else in the film. Unfortunately, this just boils down to rambling conversations that do not make the most of the premise. A thorough investigation of online privacy in an increasingly online world is a great idea; this is not that. This is a chore to get through, even at sixty minutes. STEPHEN GILLESPIE

Giving Birth to a Butterfly

Giving Birth to a Butterfly. Dir. Theodore Schaefer.

Is it reductive to say a film is Lynchian now? Giving Birth to a Butterfly is Lynchian. That is a complimentary note, in this case, as Theodore Schaefer’s direction draws distinct parallels. It’s shot in prettily textured 16mm, with rounded off edges framing the square aspect ratio. Characters talk in ethereal riddles like they’ve been lifted from a twisted dreamscape and transported into an America where all the small details are wrong but the big details make sense. It’s the eye for specificity which raises Giving Birth to a Butterfly above the average stock. It’s a scene where characters are having a conversation in a car and the camera drifts over to the parking lot where some oranges have spilled over and a little kitten is pushing them around. The minutiae of film is where the heart lies. And it has to as the absurd actual plot of the picture doesn’t go anywhere. But the themes do go somewhere and mean something larger than the scope of what happens in the text itself. CALVIN KEMPH

King Knight

King Knight. Dir. Richard Bates, Jr.

Have we had enough fun at the expense of Pagans? Not nearly, King Knight suggests. It’s awfully hard to make a low or mid budget comedy. So few find longevity and release to the audience they deserve to have. If it’s a half baked and intentionally self destructive comedy, I also hope King Knight finds an audience that wants just that. It has a certainly in itself and it’s comedic principles and just enough laughs — if not generous chuckles — to really give it a small bump, were it experienced in a cinema of likeminded chuckleheads. It’s nice and succinct, capturing the story of a cult leader who is exposed as a pleb and tries to go live a normal life and have a Walkabout but his coven intervenes. It’s basic and to the point and never emerges beyond basic fine-ness, but it works. Middle of the road comedies have their own inherent value. CALVIN KEMPH

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. Dir. Jane Schoenbrun.

Our campfire stories of old have become the viral internet legends of the modern day. Think about a format like “creepypasta,” a user-generated horror themed story that circulates the internet and plays with the intangible tensions of the internet. That’s the space We’re All Going to the World’s Fair operates in. The debut feature of nonbinary filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun, the film navigates our intense loneliness and occupation with really freaking each other out on the internet. Its successes may vary for its audience. It lands somewhere between the confessionally awkward coming-of-age story (Eighth Grade, 2018), circular stories about the virality of horror tapes with dire consequences (Ringu, 1998), and a tech-horror story that contextualizes our devices as uncomfortable windows into our souls (Unfriended, 2014). The core structural issue with the film is that we only have what’s there. That means, it’s mostly an internal story about one subject and some guy online, but it does not develop either externally, or cinematically. We do not come to understand more about its characters or how they inhibit their world, despite watching them partake in this creepy game. Still, Jane Schoenbrun has an eye for off-beat technological horror stories and the film is enough evidence that a breakthrough is still coming. CALVIN KEMPH

Not Quite Dead Yet

Not Quite Dead Yet. Dir. Shinji Hamasaki

There’s an enjoyable momentum to this film. The tale is of a daughter (the singer in a metal band) who wishes death upon her father (a bullying pharmaceutical boss). When she, through a purposefully contrived plot (the film is a farce), seems to get what she wants, things come into focus and we get the classic message of ‘be careful what you wish for’. The film is sparingly funny and snappily put together, somewhat emptily so – over-stylisation used to cover up a lack of substance or originality. In the end, this film disappoints as it morphs into a story that relies on a redemption arc for a bad dad; the film opts for the easy way out, and for basic pathos, rather than something more interesting. There is fun to be had but the ultimate direction really lets down a film that needed to be much more metal. STEPHEN GILLESPIE

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