Today and tomorrow at the Fantasia Film Festival

Reviews of five films including a doc about Pepe the Frog, “a symbol of hatred second only to the swastika.”

Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival begins today, Aug. 20 and continues till Sept. 2, bringing genre cinema right into your home thanks to their pandemic-friendly online-only edition. Here is our first of many review round-ups:

Special Actors

Special Actors (Fantasia Film Festival)
Special Actors (Fantasia Film Festival)

Shinichiro Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead was one of the great surprises — both in and out of Fantasia — of 2018, so it goes without saying that I was looking forward to what else Ueda had in store. I would not have predicted something like Special Actors, a somewhat gentle, somewhat kooky comedy that has more to do with the gentle quirk of 2008-era Michel Gondry than the metatextual fuckery of One Cut of the Dead. Granted, there’s plenty of meta aspects in the story of wannabe actor Kazuto (Kazuto Osawa), whose dreams of silver-screen stardom are constantly thwarted by the fact that even minor levels of heated confrontation cause him to faint. Incapable of even making it through an audition, he instead takes a job with Special Actors, a specialized agency that offers acting services in real life. (You can hire one of the actors to hit on your girlfriend so you can kick his ass and save your honour, for example.)

Even that job proves particularly stressful for Kazuto, especially when the agency is approached by a young woman (Yumi Ogawa) who needs very particular services. Following the accidental death of her parents some years prior, her sister has fallen in with a particularly corny cult that wants to get their hands on the inn that her parents have left her. Kazuto and his compatriots must infiltrate the cult in order to prevent them from gaining control of the inn.

It’s a pretty interesting premise to begin with, though it feels like non-native audiences may have trouble grasping the nuances of language and acting that drive some of the setpieces. In the same sense that it can be hard to suss out bad acting in a language that you don’t speak yourself, it can be hard to grasp the intended level of bad acting and hamminess required by a given scene in the film. In any case, Special Actors is a pretty likeable if relatively slight comedy prone to elaborate vaudevillian setpieces. It’s something of a disappointment compared to Ueda’s previous effort, but almost anything else would be. (Alex Rose)

Special Actors screens tonight, Aug. 20, 9:45 p.m.

Dinner in America

Dinner in America (Fantasia Film Festival)
Dinner in America (Fantasia Film Festival)

What happens when an angry punk-rock musician/arsonist meets an adorably weird little lady obsessed with his music? This alternative meet-cute is the basis of Adam Carter Rehmeier’s feature debut, Dinner in America, which he also wrote and was co-produced by Ben Stiller.

Simon (Kyle Gallner) is our snarling prince, on the run from the law, because he seemingly loves settings things on fire and telling absolutely everyone to fuck right off. While hiding from the cops, he bumps into perpetually bullied Patty (Emily Skeggs), a young woman who spends most of her time hiding from her miserably passive-aggressive family in her room, masturbating to loud punk music and sending Polaroids of her doing so to the lead singer of the band. The two form a bond through their mutual disdain for the creepily deserted version of American suburbia they inhabit, and an also immediately bizarre sexual attraction (bizarre, perhaps, because Skeggs really looks, dresses and acts like a child).

A love story between two weirdos who prefer living along the edges of society is not the most original premise, but if you’ve got a soft spot for that kind of thing (like me), then there is a lot to like here, namely a riotous heist-like scene involving a dead cat and a couple of jocks and a few other absurd exchanges between the characters and their families. However, Rehmeier’s protagonists are so comically exaggerated, almost cartoon-like, that I almost wished he had gone more over the top with the absurdity and dark humour. Gallner portrays a punk by incessantly swearing and yelling with a quasi-Bane voice, a cigarette always dangling from his lower lip, while Skeggs is constantly scrunching her face up and, as previously mentioned, unsettlingly child-like. They’re not particularly likeable and I could almost envision this being better as a kind of Natural Born Killers-type movie rather than another quirky indie rom-com.

 The writing is also often distracting; I think these two characters could have benefited from funnier, wittier dialogue if they’re going to be so outlandish. Instead, there is a lot of swearing, which I’m not opposed to, but when the line is “Ever played F-U-C-K?” I’m not sure I’m on board. To show the xenophobia of the people in whatever town, USA, Rehmeier opts for stuffing their lines with homophobic slurs and the repeated use of “retards.” There’s even a suburban dad who throws the N-word at his TV during the first 20 minutes of the movie. It’s all a little too on the nose and bogs down an otherwise pretty fun weirdo love story. (Roxane Hudon)

Dinner in America screens on Friday, Aug. 21, 7:30 p.m.

The Undertaker’s Home

The Undertaker's Home Fantasia Film Festival
The Undertaker’s Home (Fantasia Film Festival)

I don’t know enough about director Mauro Ivan Ojeda’s career or the making of his debut feature The Undertaker’s Home to accuse him of straight-up ripping off Ari Aster. For all I know, Ojeda hasn’t even seen Hereditary. But I will contend that I think Aster’s meteoric rise has been bad for horror cinema, paving the way for an endless onslaught of dour dramas sprinkled with just enough genre elements to justify their existence as something other than a dour drama. 

Suffice to say that there’s not much originality in The Undertaker’s Home, which centres around the troubled family life of Bernardo, an undertaker who lives in the back of his funeral parlour with his wife and her teenage daughter. The latter doesn’t hold Bernardo in her heart, partially because she’s still mourning her no-goodnik father and partially because Bernardo’s own father was a weird, unpleasant cultist when he was alive. The atmosphere is therefore predictably heavy even before malevolent spirits with bad intentions start fucking with the family, further driving the wedges between them.

Though it’s definitely atmospheric and well put together, The Undertaker’s Home suffers tremendously from the perfunctory and familiar nature of its drama. Truth be told, you would never make this movie if it was just about familial tensions, and they take up such a huge amount of the film’s runtime that it’s very hard to care one way or another. I’ll admit that I am particularly biased against ghost / apparition movies — they’re perhaps my least favourite subsection of genre films — but I can appreciate a good one. This is not one of them. (AR) 

The Undertaker’s Home screens Friday, August 21st at 7:30 p.m. and Wednesday, August 26th at 11:30 p.m.

PVT Chat

PVT Chat Fantasia Film Festival
PVT Chat (Fantasia Film Festival)

Tales of big-city alienation and male isolation have been a go-to topic in cinema for a good half-century, but they’ve rarely captured the moment as briskly as Ben Hozie’s PVT Chat, a queasy treatise on sex and love in the digital age. Peter Vack stars as Jack, a “professional” online blackjack player who spends all of his money on private sessions with Scarlet (Julia Fox), a camgirl who says she lives in San Francisco. Jack begins to doubt that claim when he happens upon a woman who looks just like Scarlet in a bodega. His unhealthy obsession soon turns into an unbalanced romance as he faces an impending eviction and a risky gambling scheme with his two bozo buddies (Kevin Moccia and Buddy Duress).

Obvious Safdie influence aside (it’s probably no coincidence that both Fox and Duress are in this), PVT Chat is perhaps one of the great recent depictions of NYC scuzz — impressive considering that a great deal of the film takes place online and that most of NYC is being turned into banks and ramen restaurants. The premise and its social timeliness could lead to pat moralizing, but Hozie seems uninterested in making examples of his characters, instead revelling in the complicated notions of a digital existence. Vack and Fox are perfectly cast as people who have almost become vessels for their online existence, and the film’s sickly digital photography is actually perfectly suited to the subject matter for once. It becomes a little obvious in its home stretch, but PVT Chat is undeniably a powerful and depressingly compelling vision. (AR)

PVT Chat screens on Friday, Aug. 21, 9:30 p.m. and Tuesday, Aug. 25, 11 p.m.

Feels Good Man

Feels Good Man Fantasia Film Festival
Feels Good Man (Fantasia Film Festival)

I remember a time when it felt awkward and impenetrable to quote anything about the internet — where even citing something like “all your base are belong to us” in polite conversation would bring only blank stares. I guess I’ve been so immersed in the stupid minutiae of the Internet for so long that Arthur Jones’s Feel Good Man comes across as a particularly surreal watch. Jones chronicles the unlikely journey of Pepe the Frog from obscure creation of a slacker cartoonist from San Francisco to symbol of hatred that’s second only, it seems, to the swastika. Originally conceived by Matt Furie as a character in a comic book series called Boys’ Club, Pepe the Frog was soon repurposed as a symbol of sadness and loneliness by 4chan, eventually making its way into alt-right and white supremacist circles before finally bursting out into the “normie” world and then being weaponized in Trump’s election.

It’s one thing to see Furie — a genial, bohemian Bay Area hippie type — come to terms with the fact that his creation has gotten away from him; it’s an entirely other thing to see 4chan users interviewed (credited only by their usernames) and lay out the arcane minutiae of the internet in “normie” terms. Feels Good Man is both extremely entertaining and profoundly embarrassing, a succinct encapsulation of the idea that the internet, as a whole, was a mistake. Nevertheless, it proves to be a invaluable document of something absolutely, profoundly ridiculous — a story so absurd that even seeing it laid out like this doesn’t make it any less absurd. (AR)

Feels Good Man is available on-demand until Sept. 2. 

To see the complete Fantasia Festival program and more details about tickets and streaming, please visit their website.

For more Montreal film coverage, please visit our Film & TV section.