The Fantasia Film Festival has a tradition of taking some time out of each installment to honor the life and works of filmmakers who have done important work in genre cinema by awarding them with a special Lifetime Achievement Award. Past winners of this prestigious award include greats like Takashi Miike, Tobe Hooper, Mamoru Oshii and Andrzej Zulawski. This year, filmmaker Larry Cohen got his turn in the Fantasia spotlight, receiving his award before the world premiere of King Cohen, a new documentary chronicling his life and works. King Cohen will be available for all to see soon enough, but in the meantime be sure to read our own look back at Cohen’s works for an excellent primer. To call the event a wonderful evening would be underselling it. For old Cohen fans and newcomers in attendance, that Sunday night in Concordia’s D.B Clarke theatre was one to remember.
After a brief introduction from festival guru Mitch Davis, the first speaker takes the stage: Michael Moriarty, who starred in Q: The Winged Serpent, The Stuff, A Return to Salem’s Lot and It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive. Moriarty’s voice is soft and gentle, but his training as a dramatic actor shines through when he speaks Cohen’s name, or the title of Q. When these moments arrive, his voice transforms and an ominous intonation overtakes every syllable. He only ever refers to Cohen as “Larry King Cohen,” his voice an equal mix of reverence and affection, and he stretches out the S in Q: The Winged Serpent with a gleeful drama. Like his former director, Moriarty’s flair for performance is impeccable. Not long after Moriarty completes his wonderful introduction, Cohen takes the stage, bounding up before Davis can even fully introduce him. Within moments, it’s apparent why: Cohen was born for this. Soaking in the applause from the standing ovation (one of many that evening), Cohen is instantly in his element on stage. Not in an arrogant or boastful way, mind – when the applause dies down, Cohen’s humor and wit come out, rife with self-deprecation and charm. It’s not surprising at all to learn that he once courted a career as a stand-up comic and MC. If anything, it’s hard to imagine him not making a killing at it.
Before long, Moriarty is piping in from his seat to one side of the stage, and his early assertion that the two had formed an impromptu comedy duo upon meeting is verified. They rib and cajole each other the whole evening, in that special way old friends can that never feels anything less than affectionate and loving. The camaraderie and friendship formed between these two men over the course of years radiates from the stage.
After graciously accepting his award, Cohen introduces the night’s feature presentation: Steve Mitchell’s King Cohen. Like other cinematic love-letters before it, like Electric Boogalo or Corman’s World, King Cohen is a treasure trove of anecdotes, starting with how a young JJ Abrams once gave Cohen directions, saving a crucial meeting. The interviews are a cavalcade of faces that 80s exploitation fans and movie buffs in general should be familiar with; Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, Eric Roberts, John Landis, Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, and of course Cohen and Moriarty themselves. It’s fun and informative, and rarely seems to wander or languish in its love for Cohen and his legacy. If anything, the film adheres too closely to the norm for these kinds of documentary biopics, alternating “talking head” interviews with clips and behind-the-scenes stock footage relevant to whatever the topic at hand is. There’s some fun to be had in the editing, like when Williamson (naturally with a cigar in one hand and a sly smirk) contradicts Cohen’s insistence that he jumped out of a moving taxi to prove a stunt could be done. There’s a brief back and forth between the two, shot in separate locations on separate days, that leaves the audience laughing.
However, these moments of style feel a bit too far in between. To be sure, Mitchell has a handle on the documentary game, but more infusions of personal style and playfulness would have elevated an already entertaining documentary. His film doesn’t have enough of the personal touches and creativity that made past Fantasia Docs like Rewind This or Remake, Remix, Rip-Off true standouts among their genre.
When the credits finish and the lights come back up, Cohen and Moriarty are joined on stage by Mitchell for a Q&A session to round off the evening. Cohen does most of the talking, but no one seems to mind except for maybe Cohen himself. “We’ve heard enough about Larry Cohen,” he says, drawing another laugh from the crowd. All the same, Cohen opens the treasure trove of anecdotes he’s spent a lifetime in the industry gathering. He tells us about the time he met with Donald Trump in the 80s to discuss writing and directing a made-for-TV movie biopic (one of Trump’s hotels went under the very next day, killing the picture dead). However, as Cohen tells us, he still has the script, and you just need to kick in 10 grand on his next movie to see it. Moriarty and Mitchell get their turns too, and Moriarty vehemently denies the chance of him ever returning to movies for one last ride with “King” Cohen – he’d prefer to finish writing his operas. “I hate to tell you, Michael,” interjects Cohen without missing a beat, “but that autograph you signed at dinner was a contract. I got you for twelve weeks.” The crowd cheers. These two should be playing Vegas.
For his part, Mitchell seems comfortable letting the others take the wheel. When asked directly, he talks about the daunting editing process that went into the film, the sensation of being adrift at sea among countless hours of footage. Thankfully for all of us, he made it to shore.
The night closes out with something Moriarty hyped up in his introduction hours earlier: Cohen’s impression of actor and comedian Ed Wynn. With barely a word of dissent, Cohen goes for it, launching into the bit with gusto. Sadly, it’s an impression the accuracy of which may have flown by the young ears of many audience members (this writer included), but to see the joy on Moriarty’s face when Cohen begins easily makes it a wonderful capper to an unforgettable night.
FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL • JULY 13 – AUGUST 2, 2017
‘The Divine Fury’ is a Cool Horror-Action Hybrid that Offers Something for Fans of Both Genres
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.
‘Promare’ Feels Like the Younger Brother of ‘Gurren Lagann’
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.
‘Freaks’ is a Superb Sci-Fi Thriller That Keeps You Guessing
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 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.
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.
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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