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|Written by Joe Lipsett|
|Friday, 14 October 2011 13:41|
Despite my best intentions, I never got around to reviewing my experiences at the Fantasia Film Festival earlier this summer. For those of you unfamiliar with the event, it is a month long genre film festival (focusing primarily on science fiction, horror and foreign films) that takes over Concordia University every July. This year was particularly memorable because it was the festival's fifteenth anniversary-quite a success for a festival that only seems to grow more popular each year. Read on for my reviews of three of the offerings at the festival this year.
I arrived in the late afternoon on Thursday, July 21st and met up with my festival-going buddy to take in the latest feature from French director Xavier Gens, making his return to smaller budget films after a an (ill-fated) attempt at Hollywood filmmaking with the videogame adaptation of Hitman (2007). I was interested in screening his new work because I saw promise in his first film, the "neo-nazi in the French countryside" Frontier(s) (2007), although I'll confess that I didn't enjoy it as much as other genre fans. Frontier(s) is part of the French new wave horror trend comprised of so-called torture porn films such as Ils and A L'Interieur (a personal favourite), but I found it bleak, dreary and, despite the gore, a little boring. The Divide (2011) is a new genre for Gens—post-apocalypse—so I was curious to see how he used his keen visual aesthetic in a different context. Plus, I'm a sucker for a good apocalypse film, so it seemed like a win-win.
The film takes place in an unidentified English-speaking city that immediately gets nuked in an arresting opening scene (watch it here). The remainder of the film follows a small band of survivors from an apartment complex that attempt to live together in the basement, as supplies, patience and human decency dwindle. The setting is imaginatively used considering its limitations, though it's difficult to relate to any of the characters as several start off being un-likeable and quickly devolve from there into madness. It's challenging to explore the darker side of human nature when few, if any, of your characters are likeable or relatable (one review I read suggested that there's no character arc because they start off as villains and have nowhere else to go).
It's clear early on that the film is not going to end well for most of these characters, which might have played better if it hadn't been so obvious early on who would emerge as the heroes and villains of the piece. Gens delights in exploring how depraved these people become in inhuman conditions, but it doesn't make for the most pleasant of viewing experiences, especially when the film clocks in at 110 minutes (and feels much longer). Gore fans will be happy with the mutilation and deaths, and the ending prompted discussion (due to one character's actions in the climax and the open-ended denouement), but overall this may be a film to avoid if you're not looking to put a sour spin on an evening. Sidenote: Fans of Milo Ventimiglia (Gilmore Girls, Heroes) should be prepared for an altogether different side of their favourite actor. Consider yourself warned.
Friday saw me seeing a matinee solo, so I decided to follow the pre-festival buzz to Julian Gilbey's UK thriller, A Lonely Place to Die (2011). I've long been a fan of lead Melissa George, a genre favourite who has yet to break through in the mainstream (Alias fans remember—and hate—her as Vaughan's season 3 wife). Described in advance reviews as a Cliffhanger-inspired thriller, the film turned out to be a solid choice, albeit with a wobbly third act that doesn't quite live up to its early moments.
Much like The Divide, A Lonely Place to Die opens exceedingly well with an accident on a sheer mountain face in the Scottish highlands. The scenes in the mountains are gorgeous and the danger palpable, establishing a thrill ride vibe early on that the picture maintains for the majority of its duration. After rapidly introducing the core group of vacationing climbers, the narrative finds George and the others stumbling upon a young girl buried in the middle of the woods. Without information about her abductors and unable to communicate with her (she doesn't speak English), the group moves quickly to get her off the mountain and to safety in a nearby village. Unfortunately the kidnappers aren't far behind, and their high-powered rifles ensure that our heroes don't have an easy time escaping.
It's not the most original concept, but the film has a great energy to it, and George is incredibly likeable. I was especially appreciative of a few early, unexpected deaths that tipped the balance firmly in favour of the villains, as well as the moment a character challenged George to explain why they shouldn't just abandon the girl and save themselves. Unlike other films where characters are two-dimensional and exist simply to be lined up and killed, these people react in believable ways that mirror what the audience is thinking (how many of us, however horribly, would pause to consider whether the child's life is more valuable than ours in the same situation?).
So long as the film is in the highlands, everything works. When the remaining members of the group make it to town, however, the story (and its believability) immediately begins to suffer. A new set of characters representing the wealthy father of the girl are introduced, splitting the story between their negotiations and a plausibility pushing chase and final confrontation between George and a kidnapper. The results are mixed since the audience has no investment in the negotiators and it distracts from the characters we've come to care about. The final battle with George is cheer-worthy as she finally fights back, but the preceding shoot-out in the police station and through town during a pagan festival are laughable as bystanders are mowed down in a shower of bullets, but no one intervenes or even seems to notice.
It's a disappointing finish to an otherwise strong thriller, and another solid performance from the underrated George, who one hopes will shortly find a vehicle worthy of her considerable charm.
The festival ended on a high note with a late night showing of the horror-comedy hybrid film, Detention (2011). Guaranteed to become a cult film, this picture was one of my most anticipated films going into the festival and I am pleased to report that I wasn't disappointed. As predicted, this low budget affair aims high and doesn't always hit the mark, but it is a thoroughly post-modern confectionary delight that begs to be seen by a wider audience (here's hoping that it doesn't suffer a fate similar to another classic, but tragically unavailable Fantasia gem).
Detention features both a simple and complicated narrative. The simple version is about Riley Jones (newcomer Shanley Caswell), a suburban girl in love with her neighbour, Clapton Davis (future Hunger Games heartthrob, Josh Hutcherson), and their struggle to stay alive as a Bloody Mary-inspired serial killer trims the student body population the week of prom. The complicated version is a film that toggles back and forth between present time and the early 1990s thanks to a time machine in the school's mascot, a stuffed grizzly bear. Throw in dabbles in Cronenbergian body horror, and more self-aware comedy than all of the Scream films put together and this is the filmic equivalent of the phrase "everything but the kitchen sink." Did I mention that it's also hilariously funny and contemporary?
As a cultural product, it will be interesting to see how the film ages, though for all of director Joseph Kahn's claims about the filmmaking team's efforts to keep the film as timely as possible, there's a wan nostalgia woven into the fabric of the film that's unmistakeable. Clear inspirations include The Breakfast Club where a Saturday detention is imposed on the group by principal Dane Cook, and the eighties neon-pop aesthetic of Clapton's skateboarder apparel. Despite being clearly intended for a team audience, the mostly twenty to thirty-something audience had no problem connecting to the material.
This is definitely not a film for those who prefer subtlety, however; whether you appreciate the film will be clear by the opening scene, in which a self-absorbed high school princess breaks the fourth wall to list the rules of popularity on the actual screen for the audience before being slaughtered and thrown out the window to land on the windshield of the car in which her mom sits waiting. Hilarious, inappropriate and unexpected, the film was a laugh riot that fell apart the more it tried to explain its killer's motivations or its time travel machinations. It's best to simply sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.
The Divide will be released theatrically at an undetermined date in 2012.
A Lonely Place to Die will be released theatrically in North America in early November 2011.
Detention was picked up in June by Sony Pictures for distribution, but no release dates have been announced.
Tags: 2011, a lonely place to die, arts, cinema, concordia, detention, fantasia film festival, foreign, gilmore girls, horror, humor, joseph khan, luck, melissa george, milo ventimiglia, montreal, the divide