As the world continues to be ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more film festivals are adapting and heading to the web. Giving a wider audience access to an increasing number of fascinating films from across the globe, these festivals are offering various types of viewing experiences, and we hear at The CriterionCast are attempting to bring you the latest and the greatest from these festivals. And so begins a series highlighting some films from the ongoing Fantasia International Film Festival.
I began the festival with one of its most anticipated works, at least if you’re a fan of form-pushing filmmaking. Entitled Crazy Samurai Musashi, this Yuji Shimomura-directed recreation of one of the great battles had by legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi stars Tak Sakaguchi as the titular blade-wielder, as he attempts to battle nearly 600 other samurai without falling to any one of them. Most notable for its centerpiece, the film holds within its roughly 90 minute runtime a seemingly unbroken fight scene clocking in at over 77 minutes in length, that’s both impressive in its craftsmanship and yet frustratingly distracting. Sakaguchi is quite good here as Musashi, but isn’t given all that much to do as despite its gobsmacking fight sequence the film doesn’t have much meat on its bones. Best described as watching someone play an action video game, Crazy Samurai feels less like an actual motion picture and more like something resembling a glorified tech demo. Stakes are almost non-existent here and while the camera work is impressive, the style feels oddly stilted and disjointed given the relative vitality seen in the bookend set pieces that surround the central fight scene. The choreography of that very fight is also good, but again feels strange and passive in a way that at about the 15 minute mark it starts feeling less impressive and more oppressive. Once the spell breaks, there’s little to keep one’s attention here except questioning when the final blow will actually come.
Another form-challenging work of a much more successful degree, Survival Skills mimics the type of training video one would imagine seeing if they joined the ranks of a police force sometime during the mid-to-late 1980s. Under the watchful eye of the host (Stacy Keach), Jim (Vayu O’Donnell) is just that, a new cadet at the Middletown Police Department, and then some. Seemingly (quite literally) the ideal police officer, Jim is a well-mannered, driven cop, so much so that the training video begins to break down once Jim’s initially well-meaning intent to save one woman from an abusive relationship turns into something genuinely dark and haunting. Aping the style of the videos it is very strongly riffing on, director Quinn Armstong marks his feature debut with this, an adaptation of an earlier short from the director which takes to task the intent and ethics of policing and police training. In a moment in American history where there are few hotter button issues than that of policing, this film attempts to dig deep into the complex ethical arenas that officers live their lives within, exposing how human nature and the type of “hero” training often associated with police work turns every situation into something void of nuance. A scathing satire of the police state, Survival Skills is at first glance an experiment in style and structure, and in actuality an incredibly smart and textured skewering of a mammoth issue at the core of the American experience.
Heading over to the more horror-centric world that has made Fantasia an influential festival, one of the festival’s best and most interesting films comes from director Michael Venus, and is as haunting a film as seen yet during Fantasia 2020. Entitled Sleep, this German thriller introduces viewers to Marlene (Sandra Huller) who, after nightmare after nightmare, begins putting things from these visions into proverbial place. Landing her in a hotel in the village of Stainbach, she suffers a nervous breakdown, thus sending her daughter Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof) on the hunt for her and the key to bringing her back from the figurative ledge. A deep and textured meditation on both folk horror cinema and, more specifically, the history of totalitarianism and oppression that appears to be taking the world by storm once again, Sleep is an expertly acted, nightmarish picture that is at once a harrowing horror film and also a whip smart exploration of a topic sending the world to the brink of collapse. Both Khlohof and Huller are genuinely otherworldly good here, with each going through a descent into hell that makes for incredibly harrowing viewing. Venus’ direction is also quite great, embracing the surrealism found within the very DNA of the film, with his nightmare sequences coming off as thrillingly physical and strangely tactile. The photography is bleak and off-putting, and while the direction is rarely flashy, this simplistic framing makes for an engrossing film that’s able to pull the rug from under the viewer at any moment.
Rounding out the first dispatch from Fantasia 2020 is one of the rare documentaries that makes a splash during the festival, and one of the year’s more intriguing non-fiction films yet. Entitled Feels Good Man, the film draws its title from the legendary phrase that launched Pepe The Frog into the cultural zeitgeist, and in turn it highlights the life of its creator Matt Furie. Starting in the mid ‘00s in the comic book Boys Club, Pepe has gone from a slacker in a charming, light-hearted comic to a signature meme frequently posted by the Alt-Right and those associated with that collective. Spending its roughly 90 minute runtime exploring more the life and evolution of Pepe than its creator, the film is a fascinating and engrossing deep dive into how, in the Internet Age, creator intent means very little, even in the face of growing facism. As the film informs the viewers, Furie’s original character was more or less your run of the mill stoner-type, a peaceful and fun-loving beatnick the types of which you’d find in any prototypical college comedy. However, instead of being able to do things like actually killing off his character, once a piece of intellectual property hits the web, it’s now not one’s own creation. This is a film very much about the moral erosion of the internet and while the backstory about the character’s creation is interesting, the retelling of its destruction is all the more captivating. It’s simply one of the year’s more intriguing documentaries.
For more information on this year’s festival, head here.