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Fantasia Film Festival

Fantasia 2019: ‘Darlin” is a Little Too Wild for its Own Good

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In 2011, writer-director Lucky McKee’s The Woman was unleashed unto the Fantasia Film Festival audience. It made for a memorable evening at the Auditorium des diplômés, which back then was known as the Hall Theatre. For one, the movie itself is utterly insane, telling the story of a bizarrely calibrated family that keeps a feral woman (Pollyanna McIntosh) in a shed near their house, feeding but also abusing her for their own selfish, asinine purposes. On paper, it sounds absolutely terrible, and yet the film is strangely engrossing for the audacity of its concept, as well as its unapologetic depiction of ‘civilized’ people behaving more like animals than the supposed animalistic titular character. Second, the audience reaction was brilliantly split, with opinions swinging very, very far in certain directions.

Eight long years later and out of the blue comes a sequel of sorts. Pollyanna McIntosh returns, this time serving triple duty as actress (playing ‘The Woman’ again), writer, and director. Darlin’ transpires an undisclosed number of years later, although this time ‘The Woman’ is accompanied by a teenage-looking female partner (Lauryn Canny), who she leaves at a hospital one evening before vanishing back into the woods.  The teenager is very much cut from the same cloth as her elder; filthy, fire in her eyes, and defensive, she is quickly taken down by a doctor with a sneak tranquilizer injection. Her stay at the hospital is short-lived, if poignant. First, she befriends a nurse (Cooper Andrews) who somehow takes a liking to her, and she to him. Second, given the institution’s catholic inclinations, the teenager (nicknamed ‘Darling’) is quickly transferred to a local care center for young girls run by a bishop (Bryan Batt) and sister Jennifer (Nora-Jane Noonan), a former junkie. The bishop hopes to document Darling’s transformation from beast to child of God, and help earn the project additional funding. Let’s see how that goes.

Darlin Movie Review

For the better part of a decade, there has been a string of motion pictures serving as sequels to films released many years prior. Live Free or Die HardShaftTrainspotting 2Sin City: A Dame to Kill ForScream 4Toy Story 3 and 4, but to name a few that represent just the tip of the iceberg. Sometimes the attempt to bring characters and their world back strikes gold, other times much less so. In certain instances, the elapsed time leaves a void too large for a sequel to ever possibly fill, however, dedicated a filmmaker or studio may be. Then there are the examples for which the new movie, although advertising itself as transpiring in the same universe, never gels with what came before — story-wise or tonally. Such is the curious case of Pollyanna McIntosh’s Darlin’. 

No one will criticise the writer-director for lacking ambition; to begin, The Woman isn’t an easy film to make a sequel for. Furthermore, McIntosh’s take on the material has a lot on its mind, and only so much time to develop those themes. Darlin’ certainly covers a larger canvass than its predecessor, both in terms of plot and number of characters, with the most significant distinction being the film’s protagonist. ‘The Woman’ fills supporting role duties this time around, lurking in the background, killing pretty much any male human whose path she comes across. In her defense, it is difficult to blame her given the maltreatment suffered at the hands of men in the previous chapter. While some may decry that the most fascinating individual up until now is relegated to the back burner, the character of Darling proves to be the ace up McIntosh’s sleeve. Her youth makes her more impressionable and malleable, and the end product is a character that can actually change — unlike the poor ‘Woman,’ whose unfortunate life experiences have taught her to constantly be on her guard. Darling, on the other hand, experiences growth through her interaction with the other teenagers at the center, sister Jennifer, and, last but not least, the bishop. 

The very notion of putting a character of this nature in a place such as a catholic re-education center is bonkers, perfectly ripe for misunderstandings between the parties with occasionally comedic effect. While almost non-existent in the early 21st century, religious teachings were how colonial powers preserved their dominion for hundreds of years over nations inhabited by cultures oblivious to Christian-European manners, the vestiges of which are still noticeable today. Capping off a bold, amusingly perplexing set-up is the performance of young actress Lauryn Canny. Impressively dedicated, her range is frankly jaw-dropping considering where her character’s personality is at the start of the film versus at the end. 

Darlin Movie Review

While there are other solid performances (Nora-Jane Noonan and Bryan Batt come to mind), in addition to some clever storytelling devices, ultimately Darlin’ is a mess of a film, serving as a classic case of a filmmaker wanting to do so much that the end product comes across as discombobulated, and shockingly so at times. There is no question that when a film throws everything it has in its bag of tricks against the wall, some things will indeed stick. And make no mistake — some elements do in fact cling to the proverbial wall, and they are memorable. On the flip side, far too much feels tonally dissonant with the rest of the picture. Not many storytellers can pull off horror-comedy mixing with aplomb. Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead has become the go-to example of such genre bending, but suffice to say that not every horror-comedy is Shaun of the Dead. Not only do some Darlin’ scenes and plot beats feel too much at a distance from the rest of the movie, but they also feel disconnected with The Woman

Perhaps the most disappointing element is the unsubtle commentary that makes its presence loudly known in the latter stages. Film is regularly used as a platform for commentary, be it social, economic, political, or otherwise, but criticising a film’s political leanings for the mere fact that they do not adhere to one’s own is simple-minded and non-constructive (for the record, the review’s author probably agrees more than disagrees with a lot of what the film vouches for). The true point of contention should be how the commentary is communicated via the story. After demonstrating a unique vision in the early goings, promising to take the movie and the audience on a refreshing ride, Darlin’ treads a disappointingly facile route to score easy points with a certain section of the public in today’s heightened, particularly tense political climate. The film doesn’t strive for anything higher, or open minds and eyes to a different point of view, or even a different slant on a familiar point of view. 

There was a lot of potential with Darlin’. Making the pill more bitter still is that it starts really strong, only to lose focus and inventiveness in the second half. In a nutshell, McIntosh’s debut endeavour is a tale of two films. There are nevertheless positives to be taken away, yet large portions of the run time frustratingly overshadow them. Some viewers may be forgiven making like Darling at one point and sprinting for the exit. 

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

A native of Montréal, Québec, Edgar has been writing about film since 2008. At first relegated to a personal blog back when those things were all the rage, he eventually became a Sound on Sight staff member in late 2011, a site managed by non-other than Ricky D himself. Theatrical reviews, festival coverage, film noir and martial arts flicks columns, he even co-hosted a podcast for a couple of years from 2012 to 2014 with Ricky and Simon Howell. His true cinematic love however, his unshakable obsession, is the 007 franchise. In late 2017, together with another 00 agent stationed in Montreal, he helped create The James Bond Complex podcast (alas, not part of the Goombastomp network) in which they discuss the James Bond phenomenon, from Fleming to the films and everything in between. After all, nobody does it better.

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Fantasia Film Festival

‘The Divine Fury’ is a Cool Horror-Action Hybrid that Offers Something for Fans of Both Genres

Fantasia 2019

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Divine Fury Movie Review

The Divine Fury has a premise you could only find in a film that would premiere at a genre film festival like Fantasia. Yong-hoo Park, champion MMA fighter, develops a bleeding wound on the palm of his hand, and medical science cannot help him. Further assailed by voices and terrifying visions, Yong-hoo turns to a medium, who directs him to Father Ahn. Ahn is a sanctioned exorcist, and one of many Vatican agents on the trail of the sinister Black Bishop, an occult practitioner who has amassed demonic powers. Father Ahn informs Yong-hoo that his wound is a stigmata, a powerful tool in the battle against evil. This comes as something of a surprise to Yong-hoo, a devout atheist since the death of his father. With his new mentor, Yong-hoo becomes a force for good — a demon-punching holy avenger who uses his physical and spiritual gifts to battle the Black Bishop.

From that description, you couldn’t be blamed for imagining something like that one scene from Peter Jackson’s Braindead, or maybe Ninja 3: The Domination, if you’re a fan of 80s Cannon Group cheese. Even worse, you might be imagining some kind of hokey, low-rent religious superhero movie, like a South Korean Bibleman. But you’re in for a surprise; while it could easily have set its sights on camp and gunned the engine, The Divine Fury instead goes a different route, playing its bonkers premise almost entirely straight. From the outset, Joo-hwan Kim’s film remains utterly sincere about itself, mixing horror and action with some deft direction and a stellar cast to create a dark, engaging, and fun hybrid.

Painting a dark and stylish portrait of modern Seoul, Kim’s direction comes off almost from the first frame as slick and confident. Smooth, elegant camera movements glide through the dimly-lit streets, where shadows lurk and fear reigns. The film often surprises with some wonderful imagery, and walks a fine line between stylish and efficient. When things start hitting the fan and demons emerge to menace our heroes, the film also busts out some serious effects wizardry, with top-notch makeup and creature effects bolstered by clever and dynamic camera work. There are flashes of terrific art direction, with brief tantalizing glimpses of a beautifully realized world of demonic forces, and even real-world locations like the Black Bishop’s luridly-lit nightclub make for interesting and unique backdrops.

As Yong-hoo and Father Anh grow closer, it becomes apparent that their chemistry and onscreen charm is one of the cornerstones the film rests on. Even when they’re just sharing a meal, the two leads are terrific to watch together, with an easy and natural chemistry that makes them eminently believable as friends, despite their vast differences in outlook. Of course, Father Ahn’s platitudes and homilies often come across as stock and predictable, and the film’s attempts at a theological discourse are pretty shallow. But when it can’t muster a convincing theological argument, the film defaults to much more universal fare in its message: defend the defenseless, oppose evil. Who can argue with that?

The Divine Fury will make you wait before it delivers the goods, but when the time is right, it delivers them in spades. 

The confident direction and charming leads do help make up for one crucial shortcoming, though: the film may have a lot of the divine, but it’s a tad short on fury. After a tantalizing fight scene early in the film teases some great action, no punches fly until the film’s showstopper of an ending. For those expecting a rock ‘em-sock ‘em actionfest, much of The Divine Fury’s middle section — the vast majority of the film — may leave them cold. But be patient. Enjoy the atmosphere and the more horror-oriented segments, because that patience will be rewarded. When the film reaches its final sequence and Yong-hoo finally unleashes his holy fisticuffs, the result is, well, divine. The climactic action sequence in The Divine Fury is one worth waiting for, a slick and deftly delivered pair of fight scenes that will have action fans cheering in the aisles. The camera maintains a perfect distance, allowing the physical performances of the actors to take center stage, and never obscures the action with jittery movement or rapid-fire editing. The presentation is dynamic, but never overwhelms or distracts from the solid physical performances by star Park Seo-joon and the stunt team. The Divine Fury will make you wait before it delivers the goods, but when the time is right, it delivers them in spades. 


The Divine Fury is a fun, surprising and just plain cool horror-action hybrid that offers something for fans of both genres. Kept aloft by two engaging and charismatic leads and some top-notch direction, it pulls you into its ridiculous world of exorcisms and action with gusto. While it does make you wait before it fully unleashes its premise, which can and has strained the patience of some viewers and critics, its final action sequences are worth waiting for.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on August 2, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Fantasia Film Festival.

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Anime

‘Promare’ Feels Like the Younger Brother of ‘Gurren Lagann’

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Gurren Lagann is a cult classic directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi, and written by Kazuki Nakashima. It has over-the-top action, constant bravado, quotable lines, and non-stop escalation into madness. Subtly is not a common word used in Imaishi and Nakashima’s vocabulary, and luckily, fans of their work will not be disappointed with their newest animated movie, Promare. Hot-headedness (literal and metaphorical) and grandiose speeches are rampant when Promare kicks logic to the curb and goes beyond the impossible in its own unique way. What it lacks in a cohesive story, it makes up for in elaborate visuals, eye-popping action, and charismatic characters.


No matter how many times Spider-Man or Superman saves someone from a burning building, the real heroes are the firefighters; they are the ones on the ground, first on the scene. In the world of Promare, firefighters are not just stopping regular old fires; they are tasked with extinguishing supernatural infernos caused by the Burnish — humans mutated to become pyrokinetics. Called the Burning Rescue, they heroically save any and every civilian threatened by these eternal flames, doing so with advanced gear, amped-up water cannons, and hand to hand combat. In addition, they have high-tech equipment that includes drones, an armory of ice and water-powered firearms, and numerous models of mech suits.

These heroes are tasked to stop the flaming terrorists and the havoc they wreak, and in the first act of Promare, a Burning Rescue team led by a young man named Galo take on one of the most feared Burnish terrorists. They use their pyrokinesis to give themselves black, spiky armour and motorcycles that would make Ghost Rider jealous, and after a rousing success with eleventh-hour powers, Galo floats in his victory. Soon, the more militaristic, anti-Burnish organization called Freeze Force barges in and detains the Burnish, taking some of the credit and diminishing Burning Rescue’s efforts. This testosterone-driven act kindles a small spark in the back of Galo’s head, later pushing him to discover a conspiracy that suggests not all is as it appears to be.

Galo is essentially a carbon copy of Kamina from Gurren Lagann. He’s a shirtless, blue-haired, brash young man who jumps in head first to save everyone, and makes sure he looks cool doing it every time. His peers and rivals mock his intelligence and audacity, but in a rare twist, Galo immediately proves that his not simply all bark; he is also a talented rescuer, and is able to stop multiple Burnish solo. Eventually, he develops a rival with Lio, a blonde-haired, light-eyed, somewhat effeminate villain with his own code of honour. He also runs across Kray Foresight, the governor, who is appreciative of Burning Rescue and all their work. However, though Burning Rescue is comprised of many equally talented members, they are mostly pushed to the background outside of being given a few moments to shine.  

Promare takes advantage of new animation styles, and combines both hand-drawn and computer-animated designs. The vapourwave art style is bombastic and chaotic, while the angular designs of the Burnish’s powers add a little edge to the action scenes, guaranteeing that there is no wasted space on screen. The movie runs from inferno-hot to sub-zero cold with no in-between; one would expect nothing less from Imaishi and Nakashima.

Walking into this film and expecting some kind of subtly, even when it comes to the most mundane of actions, is expecting far too much. In classic fashion, the filmmakers keep making every scene more grandiose and epic. Fight scenes aren’t simply adding an extra bad guy or giving the hero a handicap; everything grows to an exponential scale. The moment you expect that Promare has reached its limit, suddenly everything goes to the extreme. But this does has its disadvantages, as subtly and clear explanations of events go by the wayside. The plot moves fast and glosses over the details of the world, history, and lore. Instead of questioning “why is this weird thing happening,” it’s better to accept that it’s happening simply “just because” — far better to just watch the bonker visuals and series of events. This pacing also makes it difficult for character growth, where relationships are created and destroyed on a whim, yet could have benefited more with extra content. It’s like the difference between the Gurren Lagann series and the movies. Sure, the movies cover a lot of ground, but they are very much more loud, operatic spectacles rather than the growing confidence of a young shy boy into a full-fledged legend.

Promare is certainly a movie that stimulates the lizard-brain neurons. It’s flashy, over the top, and outright ridiculous. The heroes and villains are operatic, and there is no nuance stored anywhere in the character’s development. But that’s why the movie is wonderful; the creators are able to depict these extreme levels of silliness, then lampoon and expand on it. There are even moments where the characters themselves have to acknowledge that this level of weirdness is actually happening. But that’s why this movie is spectacular — it’s loud, it’s big, but it’s 100% unfiltered fun.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on August 4, 2019 as part of our Fantasia Film Festival coverage. 

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Fantasia Film Festival

‘Freaks’ is a Superb Sci-Fi Thriller That Keeps You Guessing

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Directing duo Zach Lipovsky and Adam B Stein have clearly taken inspiration from such films as Room and 10 Cloverfield Lane to craft a stunning, genre-bending, psychological sci-fi thriller about a young girl who discovers a new world beyond her front door. The film unravels inside of a ramshackle house where a bright seven-year-old named Chloë (Lexy Kolker) is held ‘prisoner’ by her overly protective and paranoid father Henry (Emile Hirsch). The house is boarded shut with several padded locks on the front door, and the windows are covered with thick blankets and newspaper clippings — enough to keep the sunshine out. Every exchange between the father and daughter is meant to pique our curiosity about the mystery of the world outside that bolted door; having trained Chloë to assume a new identity, Henry runs her through routine security drills, and repeatedly warns his daughter of the dangers of the outside world, as well as the people threatening to kill them. Everything we see, we see from Chloë’s perspective — which isn’t much, since the young girl has never left the premises.

Henry’s increasingly paranoid and arguably insane attempts to keep Chloë inside are the stuff of nightmares. The initial setup feels particularly alarming, because it focuses solely on the unhealthy relationship between the father and daughter, leaving us fearful for her safety. Tired of being locked up, Chloë decides she wants to go in search of the ice cream truck that often parks outside her home. When she eventually builds up the courage to defy her father and escape, she crosses paths with Mr. Snowcone (Bruce Dern), an ice cream vendor with a keen interest in the girl. He claims to know the truth about Chloë’s dad, and tries to convince her to run away with him. Regardless if the man is telling the truth or not, it doesn’t take long before it becomes apparent that things aren’t quite what they seem. By now, it is clear that Freaks is a thriller designed to keep your stomach in knots, your fingers clenched, and your heart racing. The question, however, is whether Chloë can trust her dad, or is the mysterious ice cream vendor the real threat?

Freaks Review

Freaks opens with a simple scenario, but the hook here (and what keeps us watching) is that we never really know anything more than Chloë does. As mentioned above, Freaks is presented in her point of view, and thus Chloë acts as our eyes and ears — which doesn’t help matters, since she herself is too young to make sense of what is going on. Lipovsky and Stein have great fun teasing audiences, patiently revealing scraps of information such as the fleeting glimpses of TV news broadcasts playing in the background about drone strikes in Seattle, or the destruction of Dallas, Texas. Why does her dad sometimes bleed from his eyes? Who is Mr. Snowcone, and what does he want with her? There are so many questions to be asked, including who is the ghostly woman who sometimes appears in the attic (Amanda Crew), and what is her connection to Chloë?

What makes Freaks such a great mystery is that the writer-directors aren’t out to play coy with the audience. Instead, they patiently let us in on its secrets as the mysteries are slowly unraveled, in a series of increasingly intense and thrilling sequences. It really is impressive how much mileage they get out of simply not revealing too much too early. Needless to say, the less you know about Freaks going in, the better. The fun here has everything to do with how it continues to unfold into a series of surprises designed to keep viewers guessing right up to the final reel.

The less you know about Freaks going in, the better.

Freaks is also a movie that is shockingly well-made given its modest budget. It is directed by first-time feature helmers, and at times it feels like a calling card, as though the filmmakers are out to prove they can rival many big-budget blockbusters. Judging by their results, I certainly think they are more than capable of directing something on a large-scale, and I can’t wait to see what they do next. Using less than a handful of locations, a small cast, and some duly applied special effects, the filmmakers manage to create some explosive action scenes despite the film’s obvious technical limitations. In particular, the filmmakers use sound design to maximum effect when heightening the suspense, and with Timothy Wynn’s score helping them, they manage to pull off some very effective jump scares. Meanwhile, cinematographer Stirling Bancroft shoots the film completely from Chloe’s perspective, which in the first act feels incredibly claustrophobic and dreamlike — and in the third act, makes the world of Freaks seem too big for our young protagonist.

Freaks

What is it really about?

*** Note: The following paragraph can be considered a spoiler. ***

Freaks is more than just a paranoia thriller. There’s a dash of X-Men and a large dose of Tim Kring’s Heroes. The challenge here involves transitioning an overly cryptic first act into an action-packed plot involving super-powered outcasts who are hunted by the military and forced to hide from the rest of humanity. Yes, Freaks is another superhero origin story, but judging by the plot synopsis, the trailer, the poster, or any of the other form of marketing, you would be forgiven for not knowing these details. By the time those superheroic moments come, we are invested in the characters, and no matter how familiar its tropes are, Freaks never ceases to be thoroughly engaging. It helps that Zach Lipovsky and Adam B Stein show a good understanding of how children think and behave, keeping our young heroine believable while gradually filling in the blanks as to what’s happening in the world around her.

Freaks is a superhero movie that is grounded in reality. Yes, characters can control minds, freeze time, teleport, turn invisible, and fly, but their abilities are mainly kept in the background, allowing the family drama to take center stage. The story unfolds in ways that make its characters seem much more ‘human’ despite their special abilities. And like X-Men or Heroes, Freaks is upfront about its thematic focus on diversity, discrimination, and persecution. It taps into current paranoia about immigrants, people of color, and various minorities (under the guise of the mutant ‘abnormals’ or ‘freaks’) who have become victims and targets across the United States. It certainly isn’t overtly political, but the metaphor is there nonetheless.

Freaks Movie Review

Beyond the sci-fi and horror, Freaks is really a movie about coming of age. Lexy Kolker (best known as young Robin in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.) is a natural performer, easily holding her own against the older actors. Her performance couldn’t be any more authentic, and despite being surrounded by an experienced cast, she pretty much carries the weight of the film on her tiny shoulders.

Freaks is a superb thriller that breathes new life into the genre and makes the most of its confined setting, modest budget, and an outstanding cast. The first half is rewardingly claustrophobic, keeping its focus tight on the characters and keeping secrets locked down, all while teasing at whatever disasters may loom outside. The second half is touching, action-packed, and spectacular. Sometimes messy but mostly effective, Freaks gives most Marvel movies a run for their money.

– Ricky D

Editor’s Note: This review was originally published on July 29, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Fantasia Film Festival.

 

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