It’s very difficult to pass up a drama starring Richard Dreyfus who longs for outer space, and the secrets it holds. His name alone can easily bring in audiences to the theatre.
Astronaut is Shelagh McLeod’s debut feature film, and it has all the ingredients for a fantastic film. It’s a movie with a moderate budget, starring an aging and veteran actor and his desire to follow his dreams. One of the tamer movies at Fantasia, Astronaut feels a lot more like a typical Hollywood movie.
Richard Dreyfus shines in Astronaut
Angus (Richard Dreyfus) is moving out of his house and into a nursing home, in between the move he stays with his daughter, her husband, and their precocious 10-year-old son. While his transition is difficult, it just adds a little extra strain on the family. His grandson is simply in awe of his grandfather, and his telescope. They both admire the starlit sky and a comet that’s passing through. Though his body is failing, his mind is still sharp despite the rare slip-ups. His dream was to be an astronaut but pursued a more grounded path pursuing civil engineering and geology. While his family decides what to do with him, a billionaire industrial futurist is planning the very first commercial space flight. He wants to be the first person to accomplish this and is offering anyone between the ages of 18 and 65 a chance to accompany him aboard. Even though he is well beyond the age range, it doesn’t stop him and his grandson from fudging the numbers to give him a chance to explore the stars.
Astronaut is very by the book with the occasional twist and turns and clichéd in all the right and wrong ways. It’s predictable and also a heartwarming piece where every actor gives it their all. Obvious praise goes to Richard Dreyfus who convincingly portrays an aging talent with the right amount of hope and heart to not distance the audience. Angus is very well developed and conveys courage, fear, and doubt in believable scenarios without coming off too cheesy. Though the movie is not very memorable, it doesn’t have any major flaws either. It remains in this phantom zone of safe Fantasia movies, where it may not stand out as a mega-hit of the festival, but at least it won’t be remembered for being poorly executed. (David Harris)
Maggie, to make an easy joke, starts with a bang when a couple makes love in a hospital X-ray machine. An unknown party turns on the machine, leading to a scandalous X-ray image that makes the rounds among the staff. You’d think an incident this peculiar would be the inciting incident of the film, but in the long run, it’s a footnote at best. The X-ray hijinks are just one of the many odd tales that make up South Korean filmmaker Ok-seop Yi’s debut feature, a fun but uneven collection of vignettes mostly focused on a nurse and her layabout boyfriend.
Maggie isn’t a film that’s big on narrative thrust, but instead drifts lazily from one small narrative to another. In one tale, a lost ring leads to mistrust among young men tasked with mending a spate of sinkholes. In another, the only two staff at a hospital to arrive at work grow mistrustful of their supposedly sick colleagues. And all of this, incidentally, is narrated by the titular Maggie, a carp kept in the hospital. There is quirk about, and much of it.
Maggie drifts lazily from one scene to the next
One central theme runs through it all: trust or lack thereof. At its core, Maggie is about trust and suspicion, with characters either concealing a secret or harboring secret suspicions about their friends and co-workers. This commitment to theming is ambitious and helps make up for the films often meandering focus, but things nearly fall to ruin when Maggie graduates from fairly low-stakes hijinks to much more serious subject matter in the second half.
It’s extremely hard to talk about certain subjects, the looming spectre of domestic abuse in this case, and still present yourself as a lighthearted, whimsical comedy. Maggie tries, and bungles in the attempt, leading to an awkward and tonally frustrating second half. There’s a critical balance to tackling intense subject matter with a lighter air, and Maggie doesn’t find it. This also implies a greater sense of urgency to the plot than had been the case previously, but if anything the pacing slows even further, making the second half more frustrating and tedious to get through.
This problem doesn’t necessarily make the film bad. Much of what’s on display is still fun and charming, carried effectively on the shoulders of its young leads. But the second half, with its tonal problem and more awkward pacing, brings the film down considerably. (Thomas O’Connor)
‘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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