The First Weekend at Fantasia: Phantoms and Paradise

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In preparation for this year’s Fantasia Film Festival, I looked over my coverage from last year and was utterly shocked that I forgot to mention the presence of Joe Dante, director of many pop-film masterpieces like Gremlins, Small Soldiers, and Gremlins 2: The New Batch. Joe Dante is a master filmmaker, no doubt, but in the face of emerging genre stars (like the minds behind Cam, Daniel Goldhaber and Isa Mazzei, whom I can genuinely claim to being into Before They Were Cool) it can be easy to ignore the celebrities of Fantasia. But this year, that celebrity is the impossible-to-ignore Paul Williams, star of the 1974 rock opera Phantom of the Paradise. This bonkers, terrifying, hilarious film, one of the first from certified maniac Brian De Palma, was, of course, a massive bomb in North America. Well, everywhere except one place: Winnipeg, where the film made even more than Star Wars and Jaws, and endures till this day.

In my experience, Montreal prefers to wear its weirdness on its sleeve, which is what Fantasia is all about.

That seems like one of the made-up Winnipeg factoids that one would find in Guy Maddin’s seminal half-documentary My Winnipeg, but it’s completely true. Phantom of Winnipeg is a documentary about the Winnipeg fans of Phantom (Peggers, as they’re called numerous times by Paul Williams himself, amusingly), more concerned with documenting the purity and joy of their fandom than investigating why it sprung up. It’s a brilliant punchline to watching the film for the first time: you’re drowned in colour and rock and fear and that glorious Phantom getup, and then you learn that the place which wholeheartedly embraced the film was a cold, orderly Canadian city with a dark underbelly; perhaps the most secretive city in all of North America. In my experience, Montreal prefers to wear its weirdness on its sleeve, which is what Fantasia is all about.

Canadian film history came alive this year in more ways than one. Case in point, the opening night film Sadako is a sequel to the J-horror classic Ringu, which premiered in North America at this very festival, 20 years earlier; Fantasia can genuinely be credited to bringing the J-horror craze to the west. It tries to unsuccessfully split the difference between jump-scare horror and lore-expanding mystery, ultimately failing to satisfy in any capacity. The failings of all Ringu remakes and sequels are only amplified here: the film explains far too much about the origins of Sadako, betraying its mood in the process. There is, however, one noteworthy twist on the formula: in this film, it is a dimwitted vlogger that enters a condemned apartment and awakens Sadako, live on YouTube. It’s a rich, topical idea — especially considering the recent antics of dimwitted American vloggers in Japan. Too bad it never goes anywhere: a version of Ringu where Sadako could be stumbled upon in a dank corner of YouTube would truly be something to see.

Similarly, there’s a masterpiece within Chiwawa fighting to get out, but it’s smothered by the rest of the film. Following the death of an Eve Sedgwick-like young woman nicknamed Chiwawa (after the dog) a reporter consults one of her friends about her bohemian lifestyle, in the hopes of uncovering what brought her demise. That structure ultimately damns the film, forcing the viewer to spend the most time with the two least engaging characters and the least propulsive mode of filmmaking, offering only sequences of greatness. When Chiwawa is alive and onscreen, the film dazzles: shot and edited so quick that the images melt into abstraction, anchored by an EDM soundtrack and truly stunning digital textures. Had Chiwawa been the film’s POV character, rather than just a literally disembodied structuring absence, we might have a masterpiece.

Seeing this film with a Fantasia crowd, unshy about cackling and gasping and cheering, was profoundly gratifying

The Art of Self Defense opened with two video messages from director Riley Stearns and star Jesse Eisenberg apologizing for not being able to make the festival and, in Eisenberg’s case, assuring the audience that the film is, indeed, intended to be funny: “you can laugh at the film and be correct.” This is a pitch-black comedy about a timid man named Casey Davies who, after being brutally beaten by a biker gang while going to pick up dog food, decides to take up karate. “I want to become what intimidates me,” he tells the enigmatic Sensei, and he does, rejecting all sensitivity, listening to Full of Hell and learning German rather than French. 

That its deadpan dialogue has been compared in equal measure to both Jared Hess and Yorgos Lanthimos is proof of Stearns’ skill as a screenwriter, but his gifts as a director come through here in the film’s very particular tone, maintaining a balance on the precipice of humour and dread even as the story takes wild left turns. Eisenberg and Alessandro Nivola (who plays the mysterious and frightening sensei) both turn in fantastic performances, but the standout is Imogen Poots, the lone woman in the karate class who is perhaps most victimized by its cult of masculinity — and as proof of this film’s progressive bonafides there is never even the hint of a romance brewing between her and Eisenberg. Seeing this film with a Fantasia crowd, unshy about cackling and gasping and cheering, was profoundly gratifying, only cementing my thoughts that we have a new cult classic on our hands.

Who says cinema is dead?

Martial arts are also the central focus of, so far, the fest’s best film: Master Z: Ip Man Legacy, the newest film in the Ip Man series. The highest possible compliment that I can pay the film is that even though the inimitable Donnie Yen is absent, you’re not the least bit bothered by it. Instead, a fantastic Max Zhang plays Tin Chi, a man who previously challenged Ip Man (and failed), and has since become quiet, raising his son in peace, until he is drawn into the war between opium-peddling Triad gangs in Hong Kong, one led by a fantastic Michele Yeoh and one led by a perfectly-used Dave Bautista (so you know it’s a good film), all the while there is a mysterious man played by martial arts legend Tony Jaa, who is every bit the equal of master Chi. There is much to love about this melodramatic period piece, but the fight scenes are downright spectacular, brilliantly choreographed, and in one instance, make use of a flaming vending machine. Who says cinema is dead?

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