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Thursday we got news of the passing of theatre and film legend Alan Rickman, just days after fellow Brit artist David Bowie lost his battle with cancer, Rickman succumbed to the disease at the same age, 69.

The internet was flooded once again with tributes, condolences, anecdotes and information on lesser-known parts of Rickman’s legacy.

Emma Watson, one of his Harry Potter co-stars, tweeted about how sad she was to hear he had passed and how lucky she was to have met and worked with him. She also tweeted some of his quotes, including one on feminism:

That didn’t sit well with some who took to Twitter to argue that Watson was somehow exploiting Rickman’s death to push her own agenda. While these people are clearly trolls, they also don’t know Alan Rickman as much as they may think. He was a very mainstream movie star, but he was also quite vocal about his progressive politics.

Die Hard with a Social Conscience

For most people, Alan Rickman was and will always be Snape in the Harry Potter films. For me, though, he will always be Hans Gruber, the German leader of a group of high-tech thieves masquerading as terrorists in the original Die Hard (not going to say spoiler alert on a movie released in 1988).

This was also Rickman’s introduction to Hollywood film acting. At age 41, he was already an established stage actor and agreed to play Gruber for one main reason, which I first learned about yesterday: the film’s treatment of its black characters:

“Every single black character in that film is positive and highly intelligent. So, 28 years ago, that’s quite revolutionary, and quietly so.”
– Alan Rickman in The Guardian

Playing Gruber turned Rickman into a movie star, but becoming top Hollywood talent didn’t turn off his desire to do things artistically for the right reason, even if it meant not playing it safe career-wise. This became crystal clear in 2005.

My Name is Rachel Corrie

American-born Rachel Corrie travelled to the Gaza Strip in 2003 as part of the International Solidarity Movement. The 23-year-old was there to protest Israel’s illegal demolition of Palestinian houses. An Israeli soldier ran over her with an American-made bulldozer, killing her.

Two years later, Rickman and Katharine Viner, a writer and editor at The Guardian (now its editor-in-chief) compiled writings in Corrie’s diary and emails she sent back home to the states and turned them into a one-woman play, My Name is Rachel Corrie, which Rickman directed. It was a success when it first opened in England at London’s Royal Court Theatre and in other places including Haifa.

The New York Theatre Workshop had planned to stage the US premier of the play Off Broadway, but “postponed” it after pressure from Zionist groups. Rickman didn’t accept that and got quite vocal in the media:

“Calling this production ‘postponed’ does not disguise the fact that it has been cancelled. This is censorship born out of fear, and the New York Theatre Workshop, the Royal Court, New York audiences — all of us are the losers…Rachel Corrie lived in nobody’s pocket but her own. Whether one is sympathetic with her or not, her voice is like a clarion in the fog and should be heard.”
-Alan Rickman

alan rickman rachel corrieRickman and Viner, with support from Rachel’s parents Craig and Cindy Corrie, coordinated a global series of readings called Rachel’s Words. Full disclosure, I was part of the Montreal event which combined readings of Corrie’s emails and diary entries with a verbatim theatre retelling of what happened with the New York production.

My Name is Rachel Corrie did eventually open in New York properly in 2006 at the Minetta Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village. It also ran in Montreal presented by Teesri Duniya in 2007 and the same production moved to Vancouver in 2008. It is still being performed around the world, the most recent staging happening in 2015.

Now think about this for a moment. The whole time that Rickman was busy editing, directing and eventually fighting for a play that he believed in by standing up for both a work of art and Palestinian solidarity, something that could cause him problems with some potential audiences, he was also starring in and doing promo for uber-mainstream Harry Potter blockbusters.

Talk about multitasking. Talk about dedication to a cause no matter what else is going on in your life. Rickman embraced his celebrity status but didn’t let it prevent him from doing the work he knew needed to be done.

While most will remember Snape, Gruber and his other unforgettable roles, it is important to also remember Alan Rickman’s work on My Name is Rachel Corrie and the fact that he was a man of principle who brought his progressive beliefs to his work. That’s what he would want us to remember.

RIP Alan Rickman (1946-2016)

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Winter is coming. At least it should be once Montreal stops getting assuaged by insufferable heat waves (not a fan). During Fantasia, I had the pleasure of sitting down with director Douglas Schulze and lead actor Lauren Mae Shafer of The Dark Below, which held its international premiere during the fest

Set on the icy Michigan Great Lakes, The Dark Below is an experimental thriller which takes bold risks by throwing cinematic conventions to the wind and explores terrifying subject matter lurking beneath the surface of ‘normal’ life.

In the opening sequence of The Dark Below, a woman (Lauren Mae Shafer) struggles against a man who renders her unconscious and abducts her. What he does next is clearly calculated; he takes her to a frozen lake, dresses her in a scuba suit and plunges her beneath the ice into the icy waters. The Dark Below is about her struggle to survive the torture of a killer intent on seeing his plan through to the bitter end. As she drifts in and out of consciousness, the events leading up to this torture are revealed as are the stakes for her to survive the ordeal.

The tension is unyielding, which the editing and score ensure, providing no ‘safe’ moments of escape for its audience. Veronica Cartwright’s appearance in the film is an unexpected bonus and her character is pretty badass.

“This project in particular is a bit of a diversion from our last film which was straight up horror called Mimesis,” explains Schulze as the three of us seek shelter from the sun, “When I was really young, we moved from the city to a rural area and we lived on a lake. I wandered out unto the ice in the middle of winter and fell through. I literally lost the hole when I fell under and it was completely dark. I managed to turn myself around saw the light and swam up to it and pulled myself up. You know, the rest sort of stayed with me for years growing up. I’d have nightmares and so forth. So, the idea of entrapment beneath the ice, always terrified me, and I thought ‘boy would it be interesting to make this into a film one day’. That was sort of the very early genesis of the project.”

The Dark Below from Festival Fantasia on Vimeo.

Schulze and Shafer had worked together previously on Mimesis. When Schulze spoke to her about this new project, he warned her that this would be the most physical movie she would do in her career.

“At the time, I was like yeah, I’ll do the movie, I love movies, this is what I am born to do. I love challenges,” recounts Shafer. The crew went through scuba diving certification and trained with a marine. Safety precautions and measures were taken at every turn both Schulze and Shafer reassure me.

The production essentially included two very challenging shooting settings: the first taking place on the ice and the second below the ice. “I think we were filming around negative 20 degrees and the only outfit I have on is the scuba suit, which we called the Banana. It was a phenomenal experience. Just that outside portion in the snow was insane,” Shafer recounts. When the crew would break, Shafer’s scuba suit would be tossed in the dryer for the next take but often wouldn’t be totally dry:“I would have to sit there in front of the mirror, in this bathroom in this restaurant where we had our little station, and I would have to give myself a power talk.” Scenes when body heat can be seen emanating from Shafer or when she shakes uncontrollably are her body’s real reactions to the cold conditions of the shoot.

Another challenge Shafer faced during the shoot was when she had to remove her diving mask: “You are taking away your eyesight, you are taking away every sense that is possible, you can’t even feel your weight.”001

In terms of direction for the underwater scenes which make up a solid portion of the film, Schulze did everything from above the water.

“We had a monitor which was below the water and attached to the camera which was in a sort of little diving bell. We used a special under water camera housing. I would talk extensively with the camera operator before they submerged and I would explain the action to [Shafer]. It’s one thing to tell an actor this is what dramatic moment it is, you need to perform this, but then when things begin to happen organically under water you just kind of go with it.”

For many, one of the most strange aspect of the film is that it boasts only one line of dialogue:

“I am a firm believer that a film is written first and foremost and dialogue is meant to enhance a story. This story thematically deals with entrapment and a relationship. The opening quote speaks to the silence between the two characters. It is a bit of a violent ballet they perform. It seemed natural, it seemed the thing to do for the story.”

Schulze explains that the film is “in a quiet way” an hommage to the films of Stanley Kubrick. The striking colour contrast between the two main characters and single point perspective were a sort of inspired emulation.

I ask Schulze if he was mostly drawn to making genre films. In many ways, The Dark Below dives into subject matter that is equally as horrific, if not more so, than creature features such as violence against women and the dark truths we may choose not to believe. Schulze replies:

“I’m not sure if I would classify The Dark Below as a horror film. Actually, I was wondering how some of the festivals were going to take to it. You can’t really screen it next to a zombie film, you know what I mean? There’s no blood and guts in this film but there is non stop terror. And yet, there was something very attractive about that, there’s very little, if no blood, spilt in this film, it’s all terror on the ice.”

Schulze pauses and then adds poignantly:

“I almost think it’s the obligation of the independent filmmaker to push boundaries and there were so many zombie films and so many of gore films and this was an opportunity to push some boundaries and that’s what this was all about.”

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I remember back when I started writing FFR, a time that now seems so long ago that in my memory I wrote on stone tablets, that my goal was to showcase the lesser-known, the obscure, and weird. Of course, times change and I started ruining Forget the Box’s carefully cultivated image of trendy urbanism with mainstream movies and Japanese superheroes. But back in those halcyon days, and even since, I’ve always had one movie stashed away for a rainy day, a special occasion. My favorite movie, in fact. Alex Proyas’s 1998 sci-fi noir, Dark City.

So why now? What’s so special about this FFR that I’m ready to break out so treasured a piece of my own cinematic DNA? Well folks, it’s because this FFR is my last. After many wonderful years at FTB, I’ve decided that it’s time to hit the road, and that I should leave you something a little special before I go.

Dark City posterDark City is one of those movies where the less you know going in, the better. It’s built around a mystery, and one of its greatest pleasures is not knowing where it’s going next, and holding on for dear life as it takes you around twists and turns with neck-snapping speed. But I have to say something, so let me try and boil it down as much as possible.

Rufus Sewell plays John Murdoch, a man who awakens in a hotel bath with absolutely no idea of who he is, where he is, or how he got there. And to make matters worse, there’s a dead hooker in the hotel room with him, because the only thing worse than waking up next to a stranger is waking up next to a dead one.

John naturally runs for the hills, and soon finds himself pursued by multiple parties, including a hard boiled policeman, a psychiatrist who seems to know what’s going on but couldn’t be more nervous and shifty if he were played by Peter Lorre, a woman who claims to be his wife, and a group of mysterious pasty men in trenchcoats.

The city he’s in is a bleak, perpetually dark art-deco burgh somewhere between the Gotham and Sin City, and the more he discovers about what the bleeding hell is going on, the less it all seems to make sense.

Even to my untrained mind, back in my teen years before my film appreciation had fully blossomed into what it is now, I knew that Dark City was beautiful. The film’s sets, costumes, props and atmosphere are all stunningly realized, bleak and breathtaking at the same time. The city itself is as much a character as Sewell or any of his castmates.

Speaking of which, the supporting cast is a who’s who of talents. Jennifer Connelly, despite a somewhat underdeveloped role, is able to pull of a perfect mix of strength and vulnerability as our hero’s wife. William Hurt is pure deadpan sardonic wit as the police inspector on Murdoch’s tail, and Richard O’Brien is the picture of sinister as the main villain, Mr Hand.

The only weak spot is a pre-Jack Bauer Kiefer Sutherland as Doctor Schreber, the man with the answers. Sutherland overplays it more than a little bit, affecting a weird, halting accent almost throughout. He’s fun to watch, but you have to acknowledge that his performance is more than a bit too over-the-top.

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A lot like Gone Girl, part of the fun of watching Dark City for the first time is having no damn clue where it’s going next. What seems to start as a straight-up noir mystery turns again and again as more new and outlandish concepts are added to the mix.

And Dark City literally never stops ramping up, coming to a glorious head in the third act, when director Alex Proyas suddenly tears every single brake out and the film explodes like the ending of Akira into a massive…….well, you really just have to see it for yourself.

I can see how for a lot of people, this slow shift from slow-burn noir mystery to something else entirely might be a bit jarring. I can understand that the vast shift from subtle to explosive might be a bit too much. But for me, the ending of Dark City is still more wonderful and mind-blowing than that of Fight Club or The Matrix, maybe because it’s such a jarring shift from the comparative sedateness of the majority of the film. A bit like Cabin in the Woods, it’s like the film suddenly decides to get the proverbial party started, ending on the bang to end all bangs.

For me, Dark City is one of the all-time great under-appreciated films, a visually gorgeous, mind-bending genre thriller that dares to go all-out for the finale.

I think I’ve said all I can really say without giving too much away, but I’ll leave you with one piece of advice: watch the Director’s Cut. The major difference between it and the theatrical version beyond one extra scene is that an opening monologue delivered by Kiefer Sutherland, imposed upon the film by braindead studio execs fearful of audiences being too confused, is cut from the opening scene like a tumorous mass, and the experience is greatly improved for it.

And on that note, it looks like my work here is done. I’d like to thank Forget the Box for allowing me these few years of hopefully coherent ramblings, and especially my predecessor, Stephanie Laughlin, for offering me the chance in the first place. Special thanks also go to my many hard working and long-suffering editors, as well. In a lot of ways, this is where I really discovered that writing about movies is what I want to do for a living. I found my voice here, built up my confidence as a writer, and for that I’m truly grateful.

Starting very soon, I’ll be joining Screenrelish.com as a regular contributor, and hopefully you’ll all continue to follow me there, and wherever else the future takes me.

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Closing out Fantasia this year on A Christmas Horror Story, an excellent anthology horror flick, put me in the mood to go back and revisit some old favorites of the genre. Anthology films are always a tricky beast, you’ve got to have the right balance, combining the films in a way that makes them compliment one another, and it helps if there’s a decent balance of quality. Modern efforts like V/H/S often feel lackluster in this department, with maybe one decent segment standing shoulder to shoulder with lackluster ones, like a successful, attractive salaryman stuck in an elevator full of leprous drifters.

But good examples are out there, though for the most part one has to look back a few decades to find the buggers. So on this week’s FFR, I thought it would be fun to look back at some of my favorites.

Tales From the Crypt (1972)

Tales posterThe original Tales From the Crypt is far from the first anthology horror film, but it’s the earliest one I can recall seeing and one of the more looming classics of the genre. Far removed from the TV series that would bear its name, Tales feels far more classy than you’d expect. No pun-spewing skeletons here, friends.

While other films on this list would revel in the four-color pulp of their comics inspiration, Tales is pure old fashioned English Gothic, opening the strains of Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (the stereotypical “spooky horror music” you’ve heard the opening bars of a million times) and mostly featuring tale of stuffy aristos and upper-class twits getting what’s coming to them. There’s a killer Santa, a modern re-telling/re-spin of The Monkey’s Paw, a fourth-wall break at the end and Zombie Grand Moff Tarkin.

It may not have the buckets of blood and and cheesy fun of some later entries, but Tales From the Crypt is a fun and atmospheric movie that doesn’t get revisited often enough.

Creepshow (1982)

Creepshow is probably the best known and best remembered horror anthology of the 80s, arguably the one that kicked off the craze. Directed by George A. Romero himself and written by the one and only Stephen King, Creepshow gleefully embraces all the pulp and color of EC horror comics, crafting a gross, fun, colorful horror experience that often prompts as many laughs as it does scares.

The cast is full of recognizable faces, all of them clearly having the time of their lives. Ted Danson, Leslie Nielsen, Ed Harris, Hal Holbrook, Adrienne Barbeau and even Stephen King himself make appearances as conspiring lovers, evil corporate magnates, hapless hillbillies and vengeful cuckolds.

There’s a sense of pulpy fun that pervades almost every segment. While other anthology horror films at the time often seemed dead set on being scary as possible, Creepshow devotes just as much energy to being flat-out fun, with plenty of grossout moments, cathartic kills and loving reverence to horror tropes. Like Tales From the Crypt, most of the stories are about awful people getting their just desserts in silly, over-the-top poetic justice, and you’ll probably find yourself cheering more than once.

Body Bags (1993)

Body bags posterMade towards the end of the horror anthology craze, John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper’s Body Bags is doubtlessly the least well-known movie on this list. Hell, I hadn’t even heard of it until the good folks at Scream Factory did a terrific Blu-Ray re-release.

Body Bags spins three yarns, featuring a cast so expansive I couldn’t possibly list it here. For me, the most memorable performance is by far John Carpenter himself in the framing story as a morgue worker who introduces us to the various key players of each tale. He’s clearly having more fun than should be allowed in polite society, mugging for the camera as he doffs formaldehyde martinis.

The stories themselves are all great fun, one an atmospheric little slasher story, one a tale of a hair implant gone wrong and one about a baseball player (played by some guy named Mark Hamill) who receives the eyes of a serial killer after his own are lost in a car accident, which naturally imparts the killer’s murderous impulses on him.

Body Bags may not be the best horror anthology ever, but it’s a fun, often overlooked little gem that makes for a great watch with some friends.

Trick ‘R Treat

For my money, a lot of recent attempts at reviving the horror anthology for modern audiences aren’t much worth looking at. I never really got aboard the V/H/S train after being thoroughly unimpressed by the first entry, as you may have gathered by that bit about the drifters in the intro. But then there’s Trick ‘R Treat, a brilliantly crafted collection of Halloween horrors that remains head and shoulders above any other recent anthology films.

The stories that make up the film are beautifully balanced, each one subtly crossing over and feeding into the other. There’s a Halloween prank gone horribly wrong, a button-down killer trying to dispose of a body while his apparently oblivious son keeps getting under foot, an old man menaced by the film’s sack-masked poster child, and Anna Paquin as a stereotypical good girl who draws the attention of a masked vampire.

The stories are all beautifully interwoven. There’s never more than a couple going on at once and there are enough connections between them to make the whole thing feel nice, cohesive and well-planned. The makeup effects are top-knotch, with the film’s mascot Sam standing out as a terrifically designed and conceived character.

From the opening sequence that effortlessly evokes early John Carpenter to the wonderful creature feature that is the closing tale, there literally isn’t a weak moment in Trick ‘R Treat, it all comes together beautifully to deliver the kind of fun, spooky experience that Halloween movies were meant to be.

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“I never liked horror movies growing up; I’m really scared of them,” Sonny Mallhi laughed, “I don’t enjoy the experience. I get really scared and strangely paranoid and  think someone is gonna come kill me in the theatre. But Roy Lee of Vertigo loves horror movies and so, working with him, I learned to appreciate the really good ones.”

I had the pleasure of sitting down with soft spoken director Sonny Mallhi, whose film Anguish offered one of the most compelling premises of this year’s festival, to discuss his career in the film industry, taking the indie route, and inspirations for the film.

Anguish centres on troubled sixteen-year-old Tess (Ryan Simpkin) who has been manifesting and diagnosed with various psychological disorders. Jessica (Annika Marks) is at wits end trying various treatments and seeking specialist after specialist. Tess’ torments are not assuaged by the move, nor the giant pill box she must consume daily, and, soon enough, she becomes overshadowed, leaving her mother desperate enough to consider the impossible. Jessica and Tess’ lives collide with that of local grieving mother, Sarah (Karina Logue), who may just have the insight they need.

Offering the point of view of both mother and daughter, Anguish leans somewhat more heavily towards that of Tess, who wanders lonesome in this small town, meandering on her skateboard, as if herself a ghost, exploring her new surroundings and trying to ignore what seems impossible. Although she rarely speaks, Ryan Simpkin is simply phenomenal as Tess and manages to communicate volumes with her eyes. The cinematography captivates the small town perfectly both in its beauty, with hues of oranges, blues, and greens, and potential for dread around every corner. The sound design is thundering, at times almost handing out blows, maximizing the scare factor and echoing the chaos of Tess’ experience.AnguishRevVert

Anguish is Mallhi’s directorial debut after working as a writer and producer for many years. For Mallhi, it all began when he moved to L.A. and took on a very generic intern position at a production company, where he fetched much coffee, read many scripts, and did most of this completely unpaid. Eventually, he made his way to Vertigo, which was specializing in remakes of Asian films such as The Ring (2002).

As an executive, Mallhi set up various projects and naturally found himself stepping on set to co-produce one of them: The Lake House (starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock), originally based on Siworae (2000). One of the most influential experiences for Mallhi was working on developing The Strangers, where he was the executive producer.

As for screenwriting, The Roommate (2011) was Mallhi’s first script, which he originally wrote under a pseudonym. Once it was picked up, he revealed himself as the author, which made for a funny story amongst colleagues, and then went on to develop the film. Mallhi has also produced films like House at the End of the Street (2012), and Nicholas McCarthy’s At The Devil’s Door (2014), which screened at Fantasia in 2014 and also distinguishes itself for featuring three women lead roles.

Despite offers from studios, Mallhi decided to go the indie route with Anguish:

“The daunting part was, again, not selling it to studio; I had to choose everything. I think mostly for better. I think for better,” laughed Mallhi. One of these choices was to shoot in his home town where he could benefit from local connections as well as pay homage to his love of the midwest and small town films.

Moving from writer and producer to director, Mallhi found the biggest challenge, and there were more than he had expected, was knowing when to be open to changes and when to stick to his original vision:

“What I found as a producer and as a director,” he explained, “is that there is no formula. You just hope that you’ve been open to things that made the movie better or fought for things that made the movie better. Then you sort of find out at the end of the day.”

For the subject matter, Mallhi’s inspiration stems from a true story he found on the internet. As for filmic influences, Mallhi cites the strongest influences as what he learned from Bryan Bertino working on The Strangers.For the cinematography and visuals, he also found inspiration in the small town where they shot, which is a picturesque setting for Tess’s wanderings and horrifying ordeal.

As for the true story, it offered the possibility to explore several themes, including the dramatic relationship between a mother and daughter. One of the key things that caught Mallhi’s eye was that the film did not go the route of a classic (re:tragic) exorcism tale:

“[Exorcism] never works in the movies, and it probably never works in real life,” added Mallhi, “if you think about Emily Rose, that is a great example of a real life scenario where priests were torturing this girl to death and the family trusted them, thinking that it was for the best.”

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Through Tess’s eyes, Anguish asks us to question ourselves on the authorities we heed, as parents and patients, when it comes to conditions we may not fully understand or know how to handle. The history of how mental health has been handled and treated is a dark one in Western Society: a horror tale all of its own.

Even today in North America, where these conditions are medicalized there remains much that is unknown and many lacunas in providing relief. Indeed, the way illness and health are conceptualized is culturally specific and very much shifts throughout history. Having researched these different perspectives and drawing from those of people around him, Mallhi explores in Anguish the possibilities of understanding conditions that frighten us in a different light. He does so without attributing a positive or negative value to these other possibilities. When mulling over Anguish, there is horror and terror a-plenty.

At the heart of Anguish, Mallhi is seeking to push viewers and himself outside our comfort zones, to follow the characters as they try to grapple with what they cannot change and are forced to entertain different, at times surreal, otherworldly, possibilities:

“I don’t really believe in anything. I have this weird attitude where I want to believe in things but I am just too skeptical. I wish I wasn’t. There’s that side of me that really wants to believe it. I wish I could just get out of my own way to believe it and I think, for me personally, this movie is a lot about that.”

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Last week, We Are Still Here had its highly anticipated homecoming at Fantasia. Hours before the screening, I had the pleasure of speaking with director Ted Geoghegan, who has worked at the Fest for several years, and lead Barbara Crampton, well known for her role in the 1985 dark horror comedy Re-Animator. We Are Still Here is a whisky soaked dark melodrama not afraid to splatter the screen crimson.

When Geoghegan, who has been writing screenplays for almost fifteen years, first began writing We Are Still Here, he had not originally intended the project to become his first swing at directing. Richard Griffin had commissioned the script from Geoghegan based on a film they both loved: Lucio Fulci’s House By The Cemetery (1981). Other inspirations for We Are Still Here include sleepy New England ghost stories, the Giallo type films of Geoghegan’s VHS filled childhood, and the spirit of H.P. Lovecraft.

These are palpable as is the nod to John Carpenter’s The Fog for some of the aesthetic choices effects wise.  The special effects in the film serve only to enhance the wonder of the practical effects, which for one segment include dunking someone repeatedly into 100 litres of mash potatoes mixed with black paint.

“I fell in the love with the script,” Geoghegan recounted. Having both the blessing from Griffin and the film now in his hands, Geoghegan approached friend Travis Stevens of Snowfort Pictures who, in turn, connected with Dark Sky Films, which eventually financed the film.

In We Are Still Here, Anne (Barbara Crampton) and Paul (Andrew Sensenig) attempt to start over in rural New England after the sudden loss of their son, Bobby. But there will be little time for respite despite the sleepy surroundings. The house has a traumatic history all of its own and the floors are squeaking with secrets ready to spill out. Even their hippy “go with the flow” friends May (Lisa Marie) and Jacob (Larry Fessenden) are strung out by the vibes. Soon, they inadvertently unleash a bloody slaughter that literally paints the walls red.

“I think the silver lining to me taking over the project,” Geoghegan shared, “was that when I had written it for Richard, I had always written two of the roles with two of my friends in mind: I’d written Anne with Barbara in mind and I’d written Jacob with Larry Fessenden in mind.”

Crampton, Fessenden and Geoghegan met on the set of Adam Wingard’s You’re Next  for which Geoghegan was the publicist and in which Crampton plays the matron of a family for whom a quiet evening turns out to be a bloody last supper. Had We Are Still Here been taken on by its original intended director, the two may not have been cast.

“I think really these are the best roles that either one of us have had EVER,” Crampton noted, “ I felt close to the role and I’ve been getting some nice notices for it. I think that has to do with Ted’s writing and knowing me personally and so I’m really forever grateful and appreciative of Ted for that.”

idio0lO2jo8sndNPfxYiHlXZUHOAlthough Geoghegan has been in the industry as both a screenwriter and a producer, he had not been bitten by the directing bug before. The process of making We Are Still Here was a learning curve but Geoghegan felt encouraged by his cast and crew and peoples’ responses to the film.

“At first, I was very intimidated by the gravitas of my cast and the directors they had worked with previously. Barbara has worked with Stuart Gordon,  whom I’ve admired since I was quite young. Monte Markham, who plays the town patriarch in the film, has worked with Sam Peckinpah and with William Castle. Lisa Marie has worked with Tim Burton for years. To realize that I was going to be calling the same shots as these luminaries of film was very intimidating,” shared Geoghegan, “however, I quickly found that we had clearly cast the perfect people for the movie. I think this was due to the fact that everyone came into it very open minded with a very clean slate. I don’t think anyone brought any baggage with them. The experiences that they had previously ended up being of great benefit to the film.”

“I think as an actress too,” Crampton responded, “you have to take your cue, so to speak, from your director. Different directors direct very differently. Jim Warnoski is very different than Stuart Gordon. You really have to understand what language the director is speaking and really play to that.”

Crampton added: “even though we work in horror, actors have to work without fear. Whatever the chemistry is, you can’t be on camera and be afraid. You have to be really present and be believing in what your character is doing and not be afraid of what your character has to do, what the other actors are doing, you don’t want to be intimidated by any of the other players on the team. You just have to really relax into it.

To study for her role as grieving mother Anne, Crampton interviewed and communicated with two mothers who had lost their young adult children to automobile accidents. She asked them a series of questions about their every day struggles as well as how the deaths impacted their relationships with their partners.

“Just reading their responses brought me to tears and would bring me to the exact place that I needed to be which was a hollow place, an empty place, a lonely place, a place where there was no escape that I was a prisoner of,” Crampton explained. Although she hadn’t expected this, her portrayal of Anne, who seems tired and heavy with loss throughout, has struck a chord with persons with similar experiences who have reached out to her.

la-et-mn-we-are-still-here-review-20150605Crampton’s portrayal of Anne is strong, evoking the acting of earlier horror films. Larry Fessenden simply kills it as Jacob. Fessenden’s quirkiness brings to life the character, who swallows more than he can chew when he engages with the house’s nefarious history. Another standout performance was Susan Gibney as the town’s ‘takes no bullshit’ barkeep.

As for the editing process, Geoghegan explains that it took about a year to complete with some additional photography:

“A film like this has a finite amount of finances to work with. What you do have more of is time. So you make up for this by spending the amount of time needed to get it just right. Sometimes that takes longer than you expect but, as I kinda humbly say, this film proves, it pays off. It took the time to figure out where the film needed to be and how it needed to land.”

“I really love the fact and we didn’t even realize this until we cut the sequence but the film has virtually no dialogue until almost the ten minute mark,” noted Geoghegan,“I think that really works because by the end of the film it’s so over the top. From very silent to very loud. I think the film is a neat journey you get to go on with the characters.”

Crampton, who is hard at work with numerous projects, mentioned an intriguing upcoming film titled Sun Choke: It’s More Than A Vegetable where she plays the caretaker of a woman with an debilitating illness. Brampton describes the project as very dark, “It’s like if Lars Von Trier were more depressed than he already is. It’s pretty dark.” She also completed a film called Road Games which premieres at Fright Fest in a few weeks.

As for Geoghegan, he is currently writing a ‘secret’ screenplay for another director and has a couple projects bouncing around: “I don’t know if I am going to be producing anything else in the near future only because that takes a lot of time but I’m definitely gonna keep writing. I am hoping that within the next year or so, my next feature as a director will be off the ground.”

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COOTIES 

U.S.A./Jonathan Milott, Cary Murnion/2014

Cooties is a laugh-out-loud, good time – perfect for Fantasia audiences. Comedy-horror is a tricky business which can often fall totally flat or be so over the top that it completely misses the mark. A  promising premise does not always a good movie make and there are so many ways in which the zombie apocalypse can happen. I had expected Cooties to elicit a few chuckles but not much more. Boy was I wrong. Children are scary as hell, straight out of the worst arsenal of nightmares, and horror fans are not uninitiated to tales of possessed, haunted, or sociopathic murderous children. Rabid zombie kids, however, is fairly unexplored terrain. Unlike The Children, a scarier tension filled horror, Cooties opts for the humour in the horror with rewarding gory bits.

Clint takes on a summer school teaching position so that he can pay the bills while working on what he hopes will be his breakthrough novel. He isn’t prepared for what a total nightmare his first day teaching would be starting with a hostile welcome from a coworker and then one of his students attacking and biting another child within minutes of his awkward introduction to his classroom. Clint’s attention is momentarily pulled away from his novel to one of his former classmates, who also teaches at the school, whom he seems to still have a schoolboy crush on. As a virulent form of cooties ravages the playground,  Clint and his colleagues must survive each other long enough to protect themselves at any cost – even if it means impaling their former students.

From its opening sequence, Cooties doesn’t shy from plunging its audiences into an uncomfortable oozing meaty mess. Mass production is already scary enough, including the real world fear that we never know what’s in the things we eat. The audience is privy to the fact that something horrible is incoming as the teaching staff quips about whose mug is whose and gets ready for ‘just another day at work’ where they most tolerate each other. Elijah Wood as Clint plays to his strengths as an unimposing, somewhat obsessive, scrawny protagonist while Rain Wilson, who blew minds in Super, stands out in his role as the egotist P.E. teacher with whom Woods must compete for the affections of the film’s love interest, Lucy.

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The cast is comedy gold. I especially enjoyed the role of Leigh Whannel (who also co-wrote the film) as the socially awkward science teacher Doug. Some will find the characterization thin and that certain roles are given the short end of the stick: especially that of Tracy (Jack McBrayer). A few of my fellow critics have found the film to be somewhat lazy, but I would disagree. I would argue that Cooties does not purport to be an intellectual comedy nor a drama of any sort but rather takes audiences along for a ridiculous ride where some of the jibs are surprising while others are so overdone that it seems like the film is making fun of itself.

If you can imagine what sort of recipe this cooks up, Cooties is from the minds of writers who have penned Saw, Insidious, Glee, and the upcoming Scream Queens. A Spectrevision production, Elijah Woods’ new horror production company, Cooties is satisfying, gross in the best of ways, and oft hilarious.

As an added bonus, the short screened before Cooties turned out to be one of the most enjoyably frightening shorts I have seen at Fantasia since The Pact in 2011. Point of View by Justin Harding was shot in only five hours, this short is heavily inspired by The Weeping Angels episodes of Doctor Who. The premise is simple but the delivery is perfect and the few effects, such as the make-up artistry, are exactly on point – and scary as f***.

 

EXTINCTION

Spain/Miquel Angel Vivas/2015

Speaking of the zombie apocalypse, whether by a hoard of flesh eating kids or legendary creatures of old, what happens when you manage to survive the massive wave of the destruction of everything as you know it? What then? Based on the graphic novel by Juan de Dios Garduno, Extinction takes audiences to the cold and icy realm of uncertainty and torture of survivors. The film opens after the breakout, when mass exodus from cities is underway. The film follows two friends, who, nine years after escaping the massacre of their exodus attempts, live in fortified home-compounds separated by deep hatred. The heart of the film is Lu, who was born into the world post-zombie apocalypse and has never known anything outside of her home and routine with the man who has raised her. Now that the threat of the undead has died down due to the perpetual winter, Lu tries to convince her father to stop surviving and to let her live. But is the threat really gone or simply pupating awaiting its own gory spring?

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Extinction features strong performances by the title cast especially Matthew Fox, whose character Patrick represents the double edged sword of hardening oneself to survive. The relationships between the characters is the meat of the film. As a testament to its strength, audiences will find themselves angry at characters, like Jack (Jeffrey Donovan) who is overprotective and frankly seems like a dick while rooting for others including Patrick’s buddy, the dog. Quinn Caulking who plays Lu does a great job of conveying the paradoxical naiveté and wisdom of youth, with her unbridled curiosity and yearning for connection, which threatens to bridge the divide between the two men. Aside from this, the film offers some instances of remarkable cinematography, creating a world that is real enough to draw audiences in yet, remains fantastic – recalling the aesthetics of video games and graphic novels.

Extinction has some thrilling scares to offer including fearsome zombies, along with detailed aesthetics and strong camera work all the while posing interesting questions about survival and humanity. However,  the plausibility of their initial survival is difficult to buy into and the stupidity of some of the character’s choices may be too frustrating for some.

 

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The most unique thing about the action film Momentum is the fact that the star of the film isn’t Tom Cruise or Jason Statham. This time, it’s former bond girl Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace). It’s a breath of fresh air to know that a woman besides Angelina Jolie is allowed to do these kinds of movies.

Kurylenko plays Alex, a mysterious woman involved in a bank heist gone wrong. When her face is revealed during the robbery, she has to go on the run. Meanwhile another mysterious group of people want what she helped steal, and will do anything to get it back.

Kurylenko struggles to make a lot of the dialogue feel authentic, but thankfully she’s more than capable of holding her own in the fighting and car chase scenes. Its unfortunate that the director felt compelled to include a few completely unnecessary shots of Kurylenko lounging around in sexy underwear. But at least Kurylenko spends the rest of the movie using her strength instead of her sexuality.

Kurylenko’s adversary in the film is Rome alum James Purefoy. It’s not much of a stretch to say he’s the strongest actor of the bunch. Similar to his portrayal of Mark Anthony, Purefoy’s in charge of bringing the charm and playful banter to the story. Except Purefoy is so charming that at times you forget that he’s supposed to want to hunt and kill Alex, not flirt with her. Perhaps a romantic comedy next time James?

In many ways, Momentum is nothing more than a formulaic action thriller. The plot is razor thin, the dialogue ridiculous, and the chemistry between the leads extremely questionable. So why then would anyone want to invest time and money in this movie? The same reason you watch all action films; to watch good looking people kick the shit out of each other and see big explosions. And on those two counts Momentum happily delivers the goods.

 

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The Fantasia Film Fest is already nearing it’s midway point, and man, has it been a good one so far. While my FTB co-horts are off covering indie horrors and moody, introspective character pieces, I’ve been happily chewing away on Asian films and cinematic oddities, so let’s dive in.

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I’m not as plugged into the anime/manga scene these days as I was a decade or so ago (the tubes started chafing me), but I gather that Assassination Classroom is something of a big deal these days. How the live action movie (evidently the first in a series) holds up as an adaptation of the manga and anime is something I can’t comment on, but as a complete layman to the series, I can say it’s a heck of a lot of fun. It’s a prime slice of Japanese absurdity in the vein of Takashi Miike, but maybe with a touch less satirical wit.

The film, which tells the story of an alien who teaches a homeroom full of delinquent kids bent on killing him for a reward put up by the government, bears all the earmarks of an adaptation of a larger work, which is the biggest problem the film has. Characters who seem like they should be important come and go, plot points and important items are dropped in out of nowhere, giving the film that feeling of being condensed that you get with a lot of these kinds of works. It also doesn’t entirely have a proper ending, leaving way too many loose threads for me to excuse.

That aside, it has a lot of charm, humour, and surreal visuals that kept me consistently entertained.

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But speaking of movies over-packed with too many characters and story elements, here comes The Arti, a Chinese fantasy adventure brought to life by a combination of intricate puppet work and CGI that walks the line between Wuxia epic and Japanese role-playing game.

I don’t make that last comparison lightly, by the way. The Arti feels very influenced by stuff like the Final Fantasy series, combining martial arts mythology with a metric ton of lore, magical locales, creatures, and increasingly outlandish character designs. While Assassination Classroom more or less held up under the weight of the story it was trying to tell, The Arti feels smothered by all the lore, characters, sudden betrayals, macguffins, and flagrant deus-ex-machina.

Which is a shame, because it’s definitely an interesting film to watch purely on a visual level. The design and implementation of the puppets that make up the film’s cast is at times astonishing, and the copious amounts of CGI actually doesn’t look half bad alongside the puppet work. But it still feels ridiculously over-written in some cases, and under-written in others.

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From two movies over-packed with story and suffering for it to a film light on story but heavy on charm, we turn to The Case of Hana and Alice. The film focuses on Alice, a teenage girl who finds herself in a new school and neighborhood, who befriends her reclusive neighbor on a quest to unravel a school mystery involving a supposedly dead classmate.

While this is the basic premise of Hana and Alice, the film seems less concerned with the plot as a whole so much as the scenes that make up the film. For long stretches, the quest at large will sort of drop by the wayside for infectiously charming scenes of simple character interaction, comedy sequences, and atmosphere. And throughout these sequences, I never felt myself growing bored or yearning for a return to the main plot.

I think this comes from the fact that the film is loaded with characterization. The cast rarely feels two-dimensional or hollow, everyone is bursting with character, which makes watching them interact and bond continuously fascinating. It’s a ridiculously charming, enjoyable little movie, one that kept me smiling and entranced virtually from the first frame until the last.

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I don’t think I’ve seen a movie quite so perplexing in a long time. Roar, a 1981 oddity of a movie that was recently re-released and picked up by Fantasia, is like some weird, tone-deaf mashup of a nature film and a home invasion horror movie. A hilariously All-American family comes to join the patriarch, a nature… scientist of some kind, in a house in Africa where he lives with over 150 lions, tigers, panthers, and other assorted big cats, in a mad scheme to prove that big cats and people can co-exist in the same habitat.

Of course, the family arrives when dad is out, leaving them to get menaced by their new housemates. The film was the demented brainchild of its stars, Tippi Hedren and Noel Marshall, who conceived of the film as a way to raise awareness about the hunting of big cats and to cast them in a new, less threatening light. But in the process, Marshall and co. accidentally managed to craft more of a horror film than anything else. Especially if you’re aware of the fact that the big cats in the film’s feline cast were mostly untrained, Roar is a tense, sometimes terrifying experience. Watching Hedren, her real life daughter Melanie Griffith, and Marshall’s two sons run from big cats that very clearly want to do them no small degree of bodily harm is often more unsettling than anything I’ve seen in Fantasia’s actual horror film crop this year.

Of course, the horror element is often underscored by the bouncy, happy-go-lucky soundtrack that seems to suggest we should be finding all of this terribly amusing. Tell that to my clenched buttocks during the screening. Roar may not technically be a good film, but it is a fascinating one. It’s intriguing to see how colossally misguided and unaware of itself it is. I’m sure you could do a really interesting post-colonialist reading, the thesis statement being “white people are just so goddamn silly”, but sadly, I haven’t the room for that here.

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It seems like in the last few weeks that the lumbering walrus that is summer finally reared its head and dropped its heaving, sweaty bulk on the people of Montreal, because MAN has it been hot lately. Thankfully, the Fantasia Film Festival is here to give us the perfect excuse to stay inside, bask in air-conditioned comfort and take in the latest cinematic delights they’ve brought us this year. I’ve only been able to take in two films so far (curse my need to work and write) but judging from Fantasia’s first offerings, we’re in for a good three weeks.

Miss Hokusai

Even though I’m not much of an anime watcher these days (at least when it comes to series) I always make a point of checking out as much of Fantasia’s anime content as I can, and this year the fest started on some, with Miss Hokusai making its North American Premiere.

Miss Hokusai PosterMiss Hokusai tells the sorta true story of O-Ei, the daughter of a famous Edo period artist. For the most part, the film is a fairly light slice-of-life affair consisting of short vignettes taking us into daily life in the period, O-Ei’s troubled relationship with her father, and her close bond with her younger sister.

Where Miss Hokusai feels a bit muddled and off-topic however, is the odd paranormal/ghost story sub-plot that sees O-Ei, her father, and his student helping a local courtesan with a ghost problem. It’s the best example of the only real problem the film has, which is a bit too much variety for its own good.

The soundtrack, for example, will alternate between contemporary rock and soft, period-accurate woodwinds and percussion instruments, giving the film an unpredictable, almost discordant soundscape. Similarly the sudden switches between slice-of-life drama and paranormal spook-ery may leave a lot of audience members confused about what the aim of the movie really is.

This isn’t helped by the fact that the episodic nature of the narrative makes it somewhat hard to get swept up in the narrative. Maybe if there were one vignette less, so the rest could feel more fleshed out, perhaps this problem would be lessened.

That being said, Miss Hokusai is still a perfectly pleasant and enjoyable experience, and got Fantasia 2015 off to a great, if inoffensive start.

Kung Fu Killer

If there’s anything that says Fantasia more than anime, it’s Donnie Yen kicking someone in the head, and Fantasia delivered that on Day 2 with Kung Fu Killer, a Hong Kong beat ’em up that delivers exactly what you want it to: action, style, melodrama and intense Donny Yen faces.

Kung Fu Killer poster

Yen plays Hahou Mo, a former martial artist serving a prison sentence for killing a man in a duel. But when a mysterious serial killer starts tracking down and killing martial arts masters, Mo is brought in to help the Hong Kong police bring the killer to justice.

Kung Fu Killer is a definite crowd-pleaser, since it gives you exactly what you want going in. The fight scenes are fast paced, well shot and full of style, the pace stays brisk and to-the-point practically from the word go, and Yen does what we all know and love him for: kick ass and look intensely off into the middle distance while swearing revenge for this, that or the other thing.

The one problem is that for a gritty martial arts flick, Kung Fu Killer seems too reliant on digital effects, greenscreening and wirework. Not that there’s anything wrong with “wire-fu” in general, but in a contemporary-set Donnie Yen vehicle, focused more on grit and realism than Wuxia movies, the few uses of wirework seem out of place and distracting.

And that goes double for the film’s post-production visual effects, the most egregious example being a terrible looking CGI boat jump. It wouldn’t be such a big deal if it weren’t a stunt I’ve seen done for real in at least a dozen movies. Who knows, maybe they had a good reason not to attempt the stunt for real, but the sudden CGI took me out of the moment hard.

But these gripes aside, I had a lot of fun with Kung Fu Killer. The action is solid and the melodrama thick enough to cut with a knife, which kept the audience sufficiently amused, and I was right along with them.

If nothing else, watch it for the villain’s hilarious lack of any subtlety when it comes to facial expressions. He’s like the Chinese Matt Smith, in every second shot his face is contorted into some weird cartoon-approximation of what a normal human expression looks like and it’s hilarious and endearing every single time.

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On July 7, humidity engulfed Montreal, gloomy, thick and viscous. The perfect setting for suspense and dark tales to unfold. On that day, Fantasia Film Festival unveiled its generous program chock full of unnerving, innovative flicks that will haunt you potentially for years.

For many, this season offers more gifts than any other festivities: over 130 features across the genre spectrum. Navigating the whole shebang can be dizzying, and so here are my recommendations for a varied selection of the most promising films to check out this summer:

10. The Invitation – USA/Karyn Kusuma/2015

 August 3, 7:35 PM, at Concordia Hall Theatre

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Karyn Kusuma, known for her breakout debut Girlfight and the fun Jennifer’s Body offers what might just be that unexpected unnerving Fantasia experience that stays with you for weeks. A young couple, Eden and Will, splits after a tragic event and depression ensues for the heartbroken man who struggles to move on.

Years later, an invitation from Eden proves too hard to resist. This dinner party, however, is strange – the kind of strange you can’t quite put your finger on. Mitch Davis, co-director of the fest, hails the film as a “astoundingly frightening film, a brilliantly scripted, character-driven ensemble horror work of the rarest kind.”

9. Crumbs – Ethiopia/Spain/Finland/Miguel Llanso/2015

July 31, 7:40 PM and August 3, 3:30 PMat J.A. De Sève Theatre

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Crumbs is a post-apocalyptic work of afro-futurism. In this world, relics of the past are so old and unknown that they hold a sort of mystical quality. Candy, a man, forgoes his routine in the search for some answers. This sci-fi feature is part of a resonating Ethiopian new wave and its name has been on critics’ and programmers’ lips since its screening at the Rotterdam Film Festival.

8. Cherry Tree – Ireland/David Keating/2015

July 25, 9:45 PM, and July 31, 1:00 PM at J.A. De Sève Theatre

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Cherry Tree is one of two Irish genre cinema picks on this list, and for good reason. In a tiny town with a rumoured dark past, Faith’s father is very sick. Things seem hopeless until one of her mentors makes her an offer she can’t refuse. Fantasia wouldn’t be complete without a film doused in dark intentions and sprouting from satanic intentions.

7. We Are Still Here – USA/Ted Geoghegan/2015

July 19, 7:20 PM at the Concordia Hall Theatre

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A couple attempts to start over in rural New England after the loss of their son. But there will be little time for mending wounds, as something is off with the house and it seems they are not alone. The floors are squeaking with secrets ready to spill out. Soon, they inadvertently unleash a bloody slaughter that will literally paint the walls red. 

This film is a Fantasia baby of sorts, directed by Ted Geoghegan, the fest’s Director of Publicity. Noteworthy is the casting of Larry Fessenden (director of The Last Winter and Wendigo) as a spiritualist hippy. Can’t wait!

6. The Blue Hour – Thailand/Anucha Boonyawatana/2015

July 24, 17:40 PM, and July 27, 13:00 PM, at J.A. De Sève Theatre

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From its trailer, The Blue Hour seems like one of those films the premise of which is less important than the experience of immersing yourself into its world alongside its characters. Tom, a young bullied queer man, meets up with a potential one night stand at an abandoned pool, which is supposedly haunted, and the two embark on a relationship that becomes increasingly murky. Fantasia programmer Ariel Esteban Cayer calls The Blue Hour a “masterpiece of tension” and hails its cinematography as “ethereal and painterly.”

5. Turbo Kid – Canada/Bew Zealand/François Simard, Anouk Whissell, Yoann-Karl Whissell/2015

July 23, 7:00 PM, at Concordia Hall Theatre

I am beyond stoked for the Canadian premiere of Turbo Kid, a film that has come about as a result of the magic of Fantasia’s co-production market, Frontières, where industry members join forces to bring audiences their labour of love. This Quebec indie has been met with lots of love in its initial festival run, winning the audience award at SXSW and screening as part of the official selection at Sundance. This flick offers a post-apocalyptic tale of BMXs and kitsch, a killer electronic score, friendship and courage, and from what I can tell from the tailer, some good fun crimson splatter. Plus, it stars Munro Chambers (as The Kid) and Laurence Leboeuf (Apple) who must face off against Michael Ironside (the super evil Zeus). This will be rad.

4. Cub – Belgium/Jonas Goaverts/2014

July 28, 5:15 PM at Concordia Hall Theatre

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As a kid, I always loved going to summer camp and always envied scouts for their survival and wilderness training. I loved ghost stories and campfire scares even more. Cub centres on outsider Sam whose camp experience will earn him some unusual badges. Facing bullies and an unsympathetic scout master is hard enough, but Sam will come to face to face with a much more deadly foe.

3. Bridgend – Denmark/Jeppe Rønde/2015

July 15, 9:15 PM, and July 17, 2:45 PM, at J.A. De Sève Theatre

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If I were a gambling person, I would bet that this Danish production is most likely in the running for one of the bests of the fest this year. The subject matter is dark and disturbing; more so since it is based on the tragic epidemic of suicides in the town of Bridgend, Wales. Rønde dramatizes these events, refusing simple answers, into what Ariel Esteban Cayer calls “a tale of pure South Wales horror.”

2. The Hallow – Ireland/Corin Hardy/2015

July 15, 9:35 pm, at Concordia Hall Theatre.

The Hallow explores the consequences of trespassing and unheeding the warnings of locals and the land. A conservationist and his family move to a woodland cottage and are quickly met with the cold shoulders of neighbours. This does not bode well – secluded location, dark woods, critters in the woods… Building on mythology and lore, The Hallow offers a creature feature from the darkest corners of our nightmares. An official selection at Sundance, this film promises beautiful visuals and viscera gripping intensity.

1. Goodnight Mommy – Austria/ Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala/2014

July 20, 2:50 PM, and July 23, 7:30 PM, at J.A. De Sève Theatre

There is a slight chance I might pass out or have a full-blown panic attack during Goodbye Mommy, a nightmarish art house horror sure to mess with your head. Twins Elias and Lukas try to grapple with their mother’s odd behaviour since her return from surgery. Their mother, whose entire face is bandaged, has begun acting increasingly angry and the two begin to suspect that perhaps this woman is not who she claims to be. Convinced something bad has happened to their rightful progenitor, the two do anything necessary to force this imposter to abandon her guise.

Special Mentions: Bite, H., Anguish, Observance, Dark Places, They Look Like People

Fantasia Film Festival runs from July 14 to August 4, 2015. Tickets can be bought here.

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Watching the Terminator franchise has been like watching the trajectory of a half-brick flung with wild abandon by a carefree, callow youth. It began with an explosion of power and from there, the sky was the limit as it soared towards the heavens, unchained and free. But then gravity took hold and the flight towards glory was replaced by a tremendous fall, leading to the half-brick landing in old Mr. Macduff’s birdbath and left to be horribly mistreated by neighbourhood crows.

So it is with the Terminator movies. The glory days of the first two films are behind us, now replaced by shame and crow droppings. Terminator Genisys, the fifth film in the franchise, is out in theatres now. I can’t say for sure if it’s worse than Terminator: Rise of the Machines, the other low-point of the series, but it nevertheless represents another crushing failure of an attempt to bring the franchise back to its former glory – a confused mess with only passable action and a script that desperately wants you not to notice the tanker-truck sized holes at the very centre of the thing.

Genisys posterOur story begins with Kyle Reese, now played by the ever-dull Jai Courtney, being sent back in time on his mission from the first film: save Sarah Connor, mother of legendary resistance leader John Connor, who just saved humanity from extinction at the hands of Skynet. Reese goes back in time, only to be immediately attacked by a liquid metal terminator and rescued by Sarah, already in badass T2 mode, and her pet terminator “pops.” When Sarah was a child, it seems, her parents were killed by a terminator, and pops rescued and raised her, having been sent back in time by parties unknown.

You’ll notice that “parties unknown” part right at the end there. Important detail. One of the many, many problems plaguing Genisys, is that spoiler alert, that big question mark… never gets really addressed or explored, despite it being the inciting incident that set the whole movie off. Who sent back that terminator that killed Sarah’s parents, and who sent back Pops, are questions the characters dwell on for all of two lines of dialogue. To say nothing of who sent back the liquid metal terminator played by Byung Hun-Lee that menaces our heroes in the first act.

Now, it’s absolutely fine to have the inciting incident of your film be a mystery. Many great films have been built on this premise. But the problem with Genisys is that not only is it not answered in the film itself, it’s never addressed or brought up again. The writers give no indication that they have a solution in mind for the mystery and, in fact, sweep it under the rug as quickly as possible in what feels like a desperate attempt to hide the fact that have absolutely no idea what’s going on. Maybe that’s not true. Maybe the writers of Terminator Genisys know exactly what’s happening, and this is an attempt at setting up mysteries for the sequel to explore, if there is one.

And yeah, that’s a valid strategy. Guardians of the Galaxy never reveals the identity of Star-Lord’s father and why he was taken from Earth in the first place, after all. But the difference is, in the case of Guardians, we’re given hints and indications that there’s at least some plan for what comes next. It’s brought up multiple times, we’re given some information about Quill’s father to feed speculation, etc. Genisys, on the other hand, seems desperate for you to forget about the whole question, paying it the most token of lip service before dropping it entirely and never mentioning it again. It doesn’t feel like a mystery so much as something they never bothered to write.

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And Genisys is full of stuff like that, logical gaps that we’re expected to ignore, but which bring the whole affair crashing down the second you start fiddling with them. It’s like a Jenga tower five minutes into the game.

So does it at least look pretty? I suppose, but… look. I don’t like ragging on a film’s special effects because a) I think how photo-realistic an effect looks isn’t as important as how visually interesting it is, and b) I’m aware that low-quality special effects are a symptom of the fact that the VFX industry is critically broken, but don’t you dare try to mention that in public. But I have to say this.

Guys. Hollywood. Digital recreations of younger actors? Doesn’t. Work. It didn’t work in Tron Legacy and it doesn’t work here. I refer of course to one of the film’s most touted scenes, where the now aged Arnie squares off against a recreation of his younger self from the first film, accomplished with CGI and a body double. And it looks awful. Seriously, stop trying to do this effect, the technology just isn’t there yet.

Besides that, the action is at least competently staged, and there are some interesting visuals, especially once the actual villain of the film is revealed about midway through.

But Terminator Genisys is just the latest in a long line of lazy summer action blockbusters that expects us not to care. To “turn off our brains” and just enjoy the explosions, blithely ignoring the fact that it has half a script at worst, and one full of half-explained or completely unexplained gaps at best. The time travel mechanic that drives the plot is fuelled by nonsensical babble about “nexus points” and alternate timelines that wants you to believe it makes some kind of sense, when really it just feels like the technobabble in a bad Star Trek episode: a bunch of fancy sounding words thrown at a problem until it goes away.

It doesn’t respect its audience enough to expect them to ask questions, trying to skirt by with a script as sound as a house cards made of wet saltines. It cynically tries to placate fans with references and call-outs to previous films, hoping to distract us from its awfulness with fan-service. And I didn’t even talk about the dull performances, the reduction of Sarah Connor to an eye-rolling, squeaky-voiced bore chafing under Pops’ psuedo-parental figure, the stuff they do with John Connor that’s guaranteed to have fans frothing, and how utterly wasted JK Simmons is in a bit part that goes nowhere.

We deserve better. Terminator fans deserve better, general audiences deserve better.

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The three weeks that make up the Fantasia International Film Festival are always my favorite of the year, twenty-one heady days of filmic delights and unwise dietary choices broken up only by manic writing sessions and bleary-eyed journeys home on the night bus. This will be my fifth year covering the fest, my third for FTB, and already I can feel the pure Dionysian joy that awaits me.

The main release of the 2015 schedule has yet to happen, but the fine folks at Fantasia have already released more than enough of what’s to come to get me and every other film nerd salivating with anticipation, and this week on FFR we’ll be looking at some of the highlights of this year’s Fantasia line-up.

Assassination Classroom

It wouldn’t be Fantasia without something delectably weird and inimitably Japanese, something that by all sanity shouldn’t be a live-action film, but somehow is. I’m sure we’ll get several such films at Fantasia this year, but the one that’s caught my eye so far is Assassination Classroom.

Based off the hit manga and anime, the film centers on an all-powerful alien lifeform that comes to Earth, partially destroys the moon, and…..becomes a homeroom teacher. Naturally, the Japanese government places a reward of 10 billion yen to any student who can manage to kill the alien before it destroys the planet, meaning every student has come to class armed for war.

So it’s basically Great Teacher Onikuza meets Battle Royale with a grinning, yellow, be-tentacled monstrosity at its center. Yep, that’s a Fantasia movie all right. And I’m DOWN.

The Hallow

What’s that now? Practical monster effects? Congratulations, with those three words you’ve piqued the interest of every old-school horror buff worth his or her salt, myself included.

The Hallow looks like a classic creature feature, playing on well-worn but still rich themes of nature and old world monsters and myths wreaking havoc on the lives of us ignorant city folk. In this case, a married couple move to a remote village in Ireland, only to be warned by the local Scary Older Gentleman to stay out of the woods, lest they disturb something best left to itself. Naturally, they don’t, and much screaming ensues.

The Hallow is already garnering great reviews from its run at Sundance, and should be drawing additional attention for its director, Corin Hardy, who will sit in the director’s chair on the long-gestating remake/reboot of The Crow.

Deathgasm

Want something that’ll get a Fantasia crowd pumped? Get something loud as a piledriver, gory as a weekend internship at a slaughterhouse, metal as Optimus Prime’s ass and involving at least one chainsaw.

Deathgasm looks to be all those things. Coming out of New Zealand, home of such favorites as Brain Dead and Housebound, Deathgasm looks like the quintessential “Hall Theatre Midnight Screening” experience. This is the movie you go to see with a raucous audience of devoted gorehounds and metalheads, the movie Mitch Davis spends five minutes gushing over before the screening, God bless his heart.

The director, Jason Lei Howden, already has an impressive resume working on big Hollywood features in the digital effects department, and with such experience under his belt I think we may be looking at a festival favorite with this one.

Big Match

Past readers will recall me being a bit cynical about Korean films in the past, harumphing at the gray and blue action thrillers and raising an eyebrow at the period dramas. Korean film is something that I have a hard time connecting with, for one reason or another, but Big Match looks more up my alley and may just be the film to turn me around.

Zombie, an MMA fighter, is thrown in the clink on suspicion of kidnapping his coach and older brother. But just as quick, Zombie is released and finds himself a pawn in a city-wide board game masterminded by a mysterious genius.

Big Match looks, above all else, fun. Bright and colorful, not-too-serious, and with plenty of well-choreographed stunt work and fight scenes. I’m sure there will be more than enough dead-serious political action thrillers out of South Korea at Fantasia this year, but Big Match looks more my speed.

Miss Hokusai

Of course, it wouldn’t be Fantasia without anime, and this year’s fest will be opening up to the tune of Miss Hokusai, the story of Oei Hokusai, daughter of famed Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, who produced woodblock prints during the Edo Period.

What draws me to this film most is the director, Keiicha Hara, a relatively recent talent who got his start on the Shin-Chan movies. Miss Hokusai also comes from Production IG, a studio whose watermark is usually a stamp of quality, and who have previously wowed me with efforts like Giovanni’s Island and A Letter To Momo at previous Fantasia Fests.

INSIDE OUT – Pictured (L-R): Fear, Joy, and Disgust. ©2015 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

The last couple years have been a bit rough on Pixar, the prestigious animation studio which has spent the last two decades plucking our heart strings and hogging all the animation Oscars. (Including the ones they didn’t deserve. Looking at you, Ratatouille) After Brave came out to middling reviews, production on what was to be their next feature, The Good Dinosaur, suffered several stalls and delays. But with the recent release of Inside Out, Pixar is finally back, storming across the animated landscape like the Riders of friggin’ Rohan. And let me just be the latest in a long succession of people to say Christ Alive, it’s good to have you guys back.

Inside Out is about as monumental a return to form as Pixar fans were hoping for. It’s a film that exemplifies everything that made the studio great: stunning animation, emotional complexity, narrative depth, and jokes more legitimately funny and clever than anything you’ll find in any of the supposedly ‘adult’ comedies plaguing theaters right now.

Inside Out posterInside Out stars the anthropomorphised emotions of a pre-teen girl named Riley, who live inside Riley’s adorable little noggin dictating her thoughts and actions. There’s Joy, the bubbly, perky lead (Amy Poehler), the downbeat Sadness (Phyllis Smith), the snooty Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Nervous Fear (Bill Hader) and angry… Anger (Lewis Black). When Riley and her family are moved to a new town, Riley’s “core memories,” the glowing spheres that drive her personality, are lost, sending Joy and Sadness on an adventure to get them back and return the now depressed and unstable Riley to normal.

Inside Out, as a lot of people have pointed out already, hits a lot of familiar spots on the old Pixar bingo card. A character who symbolizes a child’s childhood innocence threatened by the encroaching onset of maturity? Check. A bickering duo cast out of their natural environment and forced to learn to co-exist? Check. Themes of personal loss and abandonment? Oh, lordy that’s a check. Really, the only thing that keeps it being the most quintessentially Pixar movie ever is the lack of the patent-pending “Manic third act chase sequence.”

But as much as we like to smugly point out Pixar’s favorite recurring motifs and ideas, it’s also impossible not to love them, and Inside Out is proof. Just TRY not to laugh at the clever, subtle “this one’s for the grown-ups” jokes (“I saw one really hairy guy, he looked like a bear”) and while you’re at it, try not to cry at the emotionally devastating Second Act finale. Yes, these are well-worn conventions, but remember that Pixar has been using them so often that at this point they wield those conventions like Inigo Montoya wields a fencing foil. And the six-fingered man? That’s you. Prepare to feel things.

But what leaped out at me, what I think Inside Out does better than perhaps any other Pixar movie before, is the baffling amount of respect it has for its audience, especially when it comes to the finale. Inside Out is built around a very simple, very powerful central idea, and no I’m not going to spoil it. It’s the lesson that both Joy and Riley have to learn as part of their respective but intrinsically linked emotional journeys.

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What’s great, for me at least, isn’t as much the message itself as the fact that the characters, and by extension the film, never completely spell it out. Nobody has any tearful monologues where they reiterate the lesson they’ve learned and apologize for the mistakes they’ve made. The film, instead, trusts us to understand what’s going on through contextual clues and simple observations.

When the climax comes, Joy never once says the words “I’m sorry”, or elaborates on what she’s sorry for. She doesn’t need to, because the film knows that the audience already understands what’s going on with her, character-wise. We know what lesson she’s learned and how she’s grown as a character, and so do the other characters in the film. It’s non-verbal communication of ideas, themes and character growth. In a film aimed primarily at children, this kind of refusal to talk down to or hold the audiences hand, carefully guiding them to the central message of the film like an overly-cautious tour guide, is so much rare than it should be.

If there’s any one thing I can fault Inside Out for it’s that among the cast, Mindy Kaling’s Disgust feels notably under-used. Her fellow supporting cast members, Anger and Fear, get their share of gags and even whole scenes to make them stand out as characters. They get clear roles to play in the narrative. Disgust just sorta seems to be there to sneer and make sarcastic remarks. She’s fun, but I kept finding myself asking why she was there. She’s like Predator 2 or funnel cake sticks. Enjoyably, but not especially necessary.

I realize that not every supporting character can have time to get their moment in the sun, but Disgust feels she’s the only notable player in the film who gets short-changed, and in an otherwise terrifically well-rounded cast, that hurts, especially since Kaling’s considerable talent feels somewhat wasted.

But that’s me grasping, really. Inside Out is the film Pixar fans have been waiting for since the closing credits of Toy Story 3. Where Cars 2 felt shallow and commercial and Brave solid but uneven, Inside Out is everything Pixar have made us come to expect from their work. Visually stunning, complex, funny, and with the feeling that the writing has become even more mature and complex than ever.

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I’ve been watching a lot of vampire movies lately, and a lot of shockingly good vampire movies at that. Between Only Lovers Left Alive last year and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night just a few months back, it’s seemed like vampire movies have been enjoying a bit of a renaissance lately.

It’s as though all the talented directors of the world gathered together to snatch vampire films back from clammy hands of Twilight, rescuing an entire genre from mediocrity in a daring mission. What we do in the Shadows arrived a bit late, however, forcing the other movies to awkwardly wait while it applies its camo paint and checks its rifle, which is the kind of awkward-humorous scene you’d expect from the film itself.

Written and Directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, What we do sits about as thoroughly in that little sub-genre of post-modern vampire media as you can get. Like Buffy, Jessica Abel’s graphic novel Life Sucks, Only Lovers and countless others, the film casts its vampires less as fearsome and mysterious creatures of the night and more as isolated, temporally-displaced, socially crippled misfits, living at odds with the century they’ve somehow escaped impalement and sunlight long enough to see and puttering about their daily lives like any other gaggle of New Zealand flatmates.

The film is structured in a mockumentary style as an unseen camera crew follows Clements’ Vlad, final1.indda former bloodthirsty count long past his glory days, and his two flatmates: Waititi’s Viago and Jonny Brugh’s Deacon. There’s also technically Petyr, an ancient, near-feral Nosferatu type who lives in the basement and sadly doesn’t get much screentime. The film follows the group through their nightly comings and goings as a few new additions to the household threaten the stability of the group and at the same time force them to adapt more to the new century they’ve been trying to avoid.

The make or break for a lot of people on this film will be their receptiveness to that oh-so-UK style of awkward, uncomfortable “Cringe” humour that a lot of us met for the first time in The Office. The awkward pauses, the stammering improv dialogue, the painful awkwardness, it’s all there in spades.

For some people, this is the absolute height of comedy. For others, it’s just painful and awkward and not particularly sidesplitting, and if you’re in that second category, you’d better just accept that this movie isn’t for you. For my part, this style of humor isn’t normally my bag but I still managed to get a good chuckle or two out, even if some of the gags had me wincing just as hard.

“Oh goody, a masturbation joke, how lovely,” spoke Thomas, his voice dripping with sarcasm like slime from the flanks of shoggoth. And oh what’s that, Vlad’s arch-enemy, only referred to as “The Beast” is in fact his ex-girlfriend? Great, didn’t see that coming. I roll my eyes and sneer at a lot of the gags, but I can’t deny that Celement and Waititi have some pretty sharp comedic chops, even if their style doesn’t always work in my case.

Another thing that may leave audiences a bit divided is the structure of the thing. What we do uses the mockumentary style as an excuse to structure the film less like an A to B story-line with clear narrative thrust and more as a series of scenes or sketches with the skin of a narrative strung across them, like Buffalo Bill’s laundry line.

Characters and sub-plots will come and go, only existing for one or two scenes and not really contributing much or leading to any great pay-off. Petyr, the Nosferatu downstairs, is perhaps the best example, which is a shame since I somehow found him among the most interesting of the cast. Maybe it’s my weakness for Nosferatu-style vampires or What we do insertthe subtle humour that actor Ben Fransham brought to his few scant scenes, but I was genuinely sad when his part in the film came to a premature end.

The film has a very wandering vibe, not so much focused on larger narrative as it is with individual scenes and exchanges. Bear in mind, there’s nothing wrong with this, and a lot of great comedic films are done this way. Plus, when it comes to the Cringe Comedy movement, that’s prettymuch the name of the game most of the time.

If this style of comedy is already your bag, you’re probably ready to roll with this. If not, again, this may not be the one for you.

One thing that did definitely jump out and grab me by the neck is overall look and production design. The sets and costumes all look really terrific, and when the main characters recount their origins, it comes with period-style art depictions of their “younger” selves, and the art department did a damn convincing job of replicating the look of renaissance art, biblical illustrations, and that sort of thing.

In the same fashion, the effects department out-did themselves with the extensive wire-work and even a rotating hallway scene. These sequences, I found, are among some of the funniest in the film, mostly for how they almost always spring upon us out of nowhere to reminds us what we’re watching, like the snarling animal fights that pop up in The Fantastic Mr Fox.

In one scene, a heated exchange suddenly has the quarreling vampires thrust into the air before awkwardly and quite literally backing down. Moments like that are a great example of simple special effects being used for great comedic effect, and they were some of the highlights of the film for me.

As I’ve stressed on at least two occasions now, What we do in the Shadows is walking to the beat of a very specific comedic drum, one that not everyone can get in step with. If Cringe humour doesn’t work on you, and you can’t appreciate the canny post-modern deconstruction of vampire tropes, the flick may leave you as cold as one of its undead stars. If you’re in the right audience, though, and can recite whole scenes from The Office and Flight of the Conchords by heart, congrats, you have a new favourite movie.

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It was with a sense of melancholy that I lowered my ever-widening behind into the seat at Cinema du Parc before the screening of When Marnie Was There. The future, in case you didn’t know, is uncertain for Studio Ghibli, the renowned animation studio that produced such classics as Nausicaa, Princess Mononoke and My Neighbor Totoro. With the retiring of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, what comes next for the studio is hazy and uncertain, with no new films announced at the time of this writing, and implications looming that When Marnie Was There might just be the final Ghibli film.

Like many North Americans, I discovered Studio Ghibli late in the game. I want to say my first Ghibli film was Mononoke, and not Spirited Away, which served as an introduction to both Miyazaki and Ghibli for many of us here in the West. But it was long ago, and memory is unreliable. No matter where and when Ghibli came into my life, what matters is that it was important. Like so many others, Ghibli showed me what animated films were capable of, perhaps even more so than the great and mighty Pixar, who, by the time Ghibli really caught on in North America, had already been sitting on their throne so long they’d worn a comfortable ass-groove in the upholstery.

Marnie posterGhibli films, and more specifically Miyazaki films, taught me things. They challenged me to understand characters I may not initially like or agree with. They showed me beauty and humor and sorrow. They were an important part of my coming into my own as a film buff – and now it may very well be over. Miyazaki and Takahata have seemingly retired and Miyazaki’s son has proven himself unable to properly follow in his father’s footsteps. Ghibli has employed other directors in the past (and is doing so in the case of Marnie) but thus far, none of them have been able to capture that Ghibli magic.

The spectre of Ghibli’s potential closing hangs over When Marnie Was There. Like an 18th century sailor press-ganged into service, this film has been pushed into the role of Ghibli’s swan song, their coda, their final bow. As such, reviewing it is… Tricky. I’m torn between viewing the film as just another Ghibli movie and viewing it as the FINAL Ghibli movie. My brain keeps ricocheting back and forth between seeing the film on its own merit, free from context, and seeing it in the role its been forced into, and the context that looms over it. In either case, though, the results aren’t good.

When Marnie Was There is the story of Anna, a depressed, socially withdrawn girl sent to live with her aunt and uncle in the country, in the hopes that clean country air will cure her asthma. After having trouble fitting in with the local kids, Anna meets Marnie, a young girl who lives in a mysterious house isolated by marshlands. Anna and Marnie become friends, despite growing evidence that Marnie is not all that she seems, and that strange things are afoot.

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For the first half hour or so, When Marnie Was There completely had me. Having dealt with these problems myself, tales of depression and social withdrawal always strike a chord with me. The quiet, lonely, self-loathing Anna resonated with me as a character, and I was eager to see how the film would treat these issues. But then in prances Marnie, blonde haired and bedecked in lolita fashion (in the Japanese sense, not the Nabokov sense), giggling with every alternate sentence and pulling Anna by the hand into whimsy and vaguely homoerotic bonding that incited giggles from sections of the audience.

When Marnie enters the film, it ceases to be about Anna and her depression and becomes a game of how long it can possibly take Anna to guess that Marnie is obviously not what she appears. How many strange occurrences can she take in stride, how often she can fail to ask the burning questions any sensible person would ask in the situations she’s thrust into.

Rather than driving the story herself, Anna is pulled along through the rest of the narrative by this golden haired doll-girl. They don’t form a friendship: Marnie declares Anna “her precious discovery” and Anna immediately goes along with it. There’s no sense of her coming out of her shell or grappling with the crippling social anxieties she showed a scene before. Marnie just appears and takes over her life, sweeping us from an interesting and nuanced character piece into a sweeping, schmaltzy melodrama capped off by a contrived revelation better suited for a daytime soap.

Marnie insert 2I began to grow frustrated with Anna’s sudden lack of agency or reasoning power, started hating the film for its reliance on sentiment rather than character and intrigue. How is it that meeting Marnie is the catalyst that sparks change in Anna? Was a whimsical blonde who stands on the prows of boats really what was missing? Why does Anna immediately become infatuated with Marnie, and open up to her in a way she hasn’t before?

In Princess Mononoke, you can understand how the introduction of Ashitaka brings change and reform to the world. In Castle in the Sky, you can see how Sheeta and Pazu draw strength from each other. But there’s never any sense of an actual relationship between Anna and Marnie. Marnie seems, quite intentionally at that, to be on an entirely different wavelength from Anna. Her half of the conversation feels pre-recorded, like she could be speaking to anyone. Marnie doesn’t form a bond with Anna, Anna gets caught in Marnie’s wake, sucked along like a piece of arm candy. I got a sense more of the bond and connection between Totoro and Satsuki and Mei, and Totoro didn’t even speak.

And since the relationship between Anna and Marnie is what drives the plot, this and Anna’s stout refusal to get the picture makes the film alternately dull and frustrating. The music soars and tears flow and I feel empty inside, completely uninterested in the characters and their relationship. If anything, I yearn for the days before Marnie flounced into the film and Anna’s emotional turmoil felt like the core of the film.

When I try and view When Marnie Was There as a film in its own right, it comes up as merely harmless. Melodramatic fluff straight out of a dime novel tear-jerker, something Nicholas Sparks would cook up, perhaps. But as the potentially last Ghibli film, all I want to do is stamp When Marnie Was Here into the dust and bury it so that I can go play the previous year’s one-two-punch of emotional and thematic depth (The Wind Rises) and artistic vision (The Tale of Princess Kaguya).

When Marnie Was There‘s worst enemy is its context. If the rumors prove to be untrue and Ghibli rises again to produce more films, this one can join the ranks as a pretty but ultimately toothless B-entry in the studio library. But if history does make this the last Ghibli film, and this was really the last time I’ll ever get to see that blue logo precede a new film, When Marnie Was There is frustrating for how much of a shallow note it ends the Ghibli legacy on.