Greetings from Fantasia 2014: Deirdre’s Reviews, Part One

For the fifth year in a row I am attending Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival! While picking a favorite genre film fest would be like choosing a favorite slasher, I will say that Fantasia has always been very dear to my heart. I will be up here for a full week, and Mike will be joining in on the Canadian fun this year too. Here is the first bundle of quick reviews of films screened at Fantasia that you should look out for. Check it out!

Life After Beth (dir. Jeff Baena)
LIFE AFTER BETH begins with Beth’s death. She is young and it is unexpected, and try as he might, director Baena makes every effort to establish her wake as a somber occasion. But with a cast that includes comedic legends like John C. Reilly, Cheryl Hines, Molly Shannon, and Paul Reiser as the mourners there is no chance that laughs can be held out for too long. As Beth’s boyfriend Zach (Dane DeHaan, who was memorable in 2012’s underrated CHRONICLE) does his best to deal with his loss her parents’ unusual behavior makes it difficult for him to move on. After some backyard snooping Zach discovers that Beth has returned to life… sort of. More a comedy with a dose of horror than a funny horror film, LIFE AFTER BETH succeeds in creating a new version of zombie conventions. As titular star Aubrey Plaza pointed out during Fantasia’s sold out Q&A, zombies are not actually real, so you can play them however you want. She clearly has fun with her undead role, and Baena has fun rewriting the zombie apocalypse.

Suburban Gothic (dir. Richard Bates)
Had you shown me SUBURBAN GOTHIC with no context, I would have thought it is a hilarious and quirky film from some new voice in filmmaking. The fact that it comes from Richard Bates just blows me away. Bates is the mammoth force behind 2012’s EXCISION, which is one of the most terrifying films in the past five years. After EXCISION I could not wait to see what Bates would create next. SUBURBAN GOTHIC is a complete departure from EXCISION in nearly every aspect: Tone, visual style, music, and plot structure. Yet it is consistent with Bates’s first film in that it is a completely cohesive film experience, with each of these elements creating an insular and authentic world. The film itself follows Raymond (Matthew Gray Gubler) as a smart mouthed weird kid who has grown up and become an unemployed loser who has to move back in with his parents after business school. Upon returning to his parent’s house Raymond’s long lost paranormal abilities return and he must team up with a local bartender (Kat Dennings) to set things right. For this type of film, however, the plot is incidental. The real joy of the film is the sharp dialogue and huge personalities in this satire of a suburban hell.

The Zero Theorem (dir. Terry Gilliam)
While Terry Gilliam has a way of creating biting satire of our modern world, THE ZERO THEOREM is by no means a horror film. It is a send up of the direction that our society is headed with technology and obsession. Christoph Waltz gives an immersive performance as Qohen, a man who is haunted by the idea that he is waiting for a phone call to steer him towards happiness. In the typical Gilliam fashion the version of the future that he lives in is bright, loud and overwhelming for Qohen. He retreats to his home, a burned out monastery in the middle of the city, and tries his best to shut out the world and get his call. When not-so-chance encounter with a vibrant young woman (Mélanie Thierry) distracts Qohen from his focus on getting that call his world begins to crack at the seams. Gilliam presents up with a peculiar protagonist here. While the world he lives in is detestable to him, and seems tiring to me, Qohen is the only one who seems unhappy there. Nearly everyone else seems pretty happy. Showing a man whose major defect is his resistance to his entire environment is an interesting thought to ponder while watching him wait, and wait, for his call.

Low budget speculative fiction films are becoming more common. With PRIMER and COHERENCE showing directors that the best science fiction films this decade can be filmed practically in their own homes many more are attempting to tell big stories with limited resources. THE RECONSTRUCTION OF WILLIAM ZERO has some good ideas, but with weak writing and limited performances it never quite tells the story it wants to. The film is about clones. Which clone created which and in what order are lead up to in the film as if they are the big plot twists, but most of these are easily guessed by the audience. The film also wastes AJ Bowen as an inconsequential henchman in a trench coat investigating one of the clones and his genetics work. Conal Byrne does a decent job of carrying all of the various parts, but his performance does not give nuance to each person as an individual character. In all honesty, the clone’s hair style is the major identifier between one clone and another. The story itself does have some solid ideas, but it is unfortunate that they are not executed in such a way that would earn them a place with the current new wave of speculative fiction masterpieces.

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (dir. Josephine Decker)
Despite my constant insistence that films be fun and exciting, I do have a strong love for quiet, reflective art-house films. It is rare that these slow films veer into horror territory, but when they do it can be a great combination. Like watching exceedingly slow train wreck, the small touches of horror are amplified. In THOU WAST MILD AND LOVELY the film is just like this slow motion wreckage. The film takes place on a small farm. The farmer (Robert Longstreet) and his naturally beautiful daughter (Sophie Traub) take on a farmhand (Joe Swanberg) for the summer to keep up with their work. The farmhand hides that he is married, and the father and daughter hide that not everything is as it seems with them. Make no mistake, this film is as slow of a burn as you will find, but the lovely pastoral setting and director Decker’s clearly controlling hand never leave the audience bored. The end of the film first takes a direction that is not surprising, but does not stop there and instead continues toward deeper fears.

The Harvest (dir. John McNaughton)
For all of the genre offerings Fantasia programs, there are only a handful of traditional horror films. McNaughton (HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER and WILD THINGS) brings us THE HARVEST as one of the more disturbing horror films at this year’s fest. The center of the film is a relationship between a young boy and girl. Maryann (Natasha Calis, THE POSESSION) has just moved in with her grandparents after both of her parents die. Feeling alone she wanders and finds another house abutting her grandparents’ backyard. Peering through the windows she sees a boy about her age who is wheelchair bound. Andy (Charlie Tahan) is a sick kid who is homeschooled and never leaves his house. His over protective mother (Samantha Morton) and doting father (Michael Shannon) keep him on a short leash that was never a problem before Maryann started visiting. Morton’s performance as the possessive mother is at a level beyond the ordinary. She is haunting and all-encompassing as a mother who is doing everything not to just protect her son, but to maintain complete control over her family. Emasculating her husband and denying her child any joy become regular behavior for her, as her character swings into mania. As the story develops and shows that there is much more going on than just a bedridden kid, the stakes are raised and the tension becomes suffocating. Though Morton is fun to hate and the plot does take a dark turn, the tone of the film is almost family friendly. The score, the child actors, and the flinching camera spare us of any possible gore or far-reaching terror. Instead you get to sit back and watch a mother become a monster, and enjoy the ride!

Deirdre Crimmins

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Deirdre (Dede) lives in Chicago (via Boston and Cleveland) with two black cats. She writes for Film Thrills, High Def Digest, The Brattle Theater, Rue Morgue Magazine, Birth.Movies.Death., and anyone else who will let her drone on about genre film. She wrote her Master's thesis on George Romero and is always hopeful that Hollywood will get its head out of its ass.

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