The virtual Fantasia Festival 2020 is in the full swing of things, with on-demand and live premiere titles becoming available to Canadian audiences. Here are reviews of three films playing the fest, The Oak Room, PVT Chat, and Hunted.
The Oak Room
Cody Calahan’s The Oak Room looks pretty good—opening with slow-moving wide-angle shots of a barroom. The camera establishes mood, producing a chilly atmosphere to match the cold environment of this Canadian town, and it moves around the space of the bar with short, sharp camera movements. For a film taking place in two essentially identical settings, it has a dynamic style.
The film’s script, from Peter Genoway, paints a different picture. The story of The Oak Room is one of stories. The two characters, a bartender (Peter Outerbridge) and a latecoming patron (R.J. Mitte), tell stories about other bartenders and bar patrons, who tell stories on top of that. Most of these characters speak in excessively expletive-laden, over-cooked dialogue, so that each line coming out of their mouths feels propelled by buckshot. Even when a character is meant to be a cool customer, they read as almost needlessly hostile.
This screenwriting tactic of stories framing stories framing stories feels roundabout given the minor payoff that they culminate in. It is clear from the beginning that these stories will all become relevant to the two characters’ present situation, converging into a neat and tidy resolution. But it is such a long walk getting to what is, in execution, a fairly plain result, leaving the film feeling slightly tedious. Mitte, to his credit, gives the strongest performance in spite of the dialogue.
The Oak Room: C+
Minor Spoilers for PVT Chat ahead.
The subtitle to Ben Hozie’s PVT Chat is “A Romance about Freedom Fantasy Death Friendship.” Technically, this is all true. It is, in essence, a romance. At the same time, it is about internet gambler Jack (Peter Vack) finding friends in unexpected places following the untimely death of his roommate. And Jack finds romance in an unlikely place, as well: while living out his sexual fantasies on a cam site. It is on this site where he meets Scarlet (Julia Fox), and they start a relationship more serious than a paid, virtual dom-sub relationship.
Hozie’s film is bold (and smart) to present the online dom community as a normal, everyday thing. But the film stumbles in its characterization of its central character, who is presented as a charming but flawed guy trying to pull his life together. But in practice he is a socially maladjusted man who compulsively lies and impulsively spends as he manically waxes poetic about his somewhat trite philosophies on life. He hounds women on the cam site, trying to get them to date him when they are just trying to do their jobs. He stalks Scarlet without her knowledge. And, at his lowest point (in what the film appears to be painting as a comedic moment), he masturbates in his ex-girlfriend’s bedroom while using her laptop to access the cam site.
Because of Jack’s confusing characterization (we are, it seems, supposed to be endeared to him, and the script does little to make him grapple with the problematic and juvenile actions he carries out), it is a breath of fresh air when the plot suddenly shifts to focus on Scarlet. She is the more compelling character of the two, it is no question. Ultimately, PVT Chat is a novel premise—two people falling in love after first engaging in a transactional sexual relationship online—executed unevenly and with a strangely-written protagonist.
PVT Chat: C+
I’ve seen films like Hunted before. That isn’t why I don’t like Hunted. I’m open for a reinterpretation of formulaic stories (the recent Revenge is a good example of a great reinterpretation of the same formula Hunted is gunning to retool). The issue with Hunted is quite simple: the hunter is the film’s protagonist, and the hunted barely gets time to speak.
Basically, Hunted is a torture porn film where the victim escapes before the torture begins. Occasionally, we will see snippets of video footage of the film’s psychopath character (Arieh Worthalter) torturing other victims. But the subject of this night’s torture (Lucie Debay) escapes into the woods. The rest of the film involves a cat and mouse chase through these woods.
And the film focuses, throughout almost all of this, on the psychopath and his brother, who have no distinct personality beyond their sadism. Frankly, it is no fun watching them trudge through the forest and, occasionally, commit violent acts. None of the film’s characters receive an extensive amount of characterizations or backstory, but it would likely have been a more entertaining experience to follow the titular hunted character and her desperate survival tactics.
There are a handful of fiendish set pieces, particularly near the end, that make Hunted somewhat engaging. But it gets so tiresome to follow two bland killers that by the time those set pieces come out it is too little too late.