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[Fantasia 2020 Review] Get Sucked Into A Grim and Goofy 80’s Videocassette in SURVIVAL SKILLS

The subject of an instructional video cassette becomes aware of his own existence in Quinn Armstrong’s debut feature Survival Skills. It’s a delightfully dark oddity that plays like ASMR for VHS collectors and audiovisual club nerds. If you’ve ever sat threw an employee training video from 1985, for a job you applied to in 2011, this is a movie that is going to hit home for you. Expanded from his 2017 short, Quinn Armstrong’s Survival Skills stars Vayu O’Donnell, Tyra Colar, Spencer Garrett, Ericka Kreutz, Emily Chisolm, Madeline Anderson, Bradford Farwell, and Stacy Keach (Amerian History X) as the video cassette’s god-like narrator. The film is currently celebrating it’s Internationa Premiere at the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival, available as part of it’s OnDemand program August 20 – September 2, 2020.

Real movies begin with an opening image or an establishing shot, but no self-respecting training video would begin with anything other than an upbeat, non-offensive intro song and itinerary. “Today, we’ll be providing you with the information you need to transition from your training to an active field position,The Narrator tells us. Along the way, we meet Jim (Vayu O’Donnell), a rookie officer like ourselves, as he goes about a normal policeman’s normal day. He is impossibly chipper, painfully optimistic, and unconditionally loyal- everything we’ll need to be, to be a successful and respected member of law enforcement 🙂

 

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Jim’s world is uncomplicated, care-free, and straightforward. There isn’t a problem that he can’t solve, so long as he remembers his training and never waivers from the path laid out by his omniscient narrator. How could he anyway? He’s just a little police officer shaped pawn with no control over what happens to him. He does what he’s told, he keeps his head down, and every night he gets to go back home to his rosy-cheeked, strawberry jam making girlfriend Jenny (Tyra Colar). In an unexpected moment, Jim breaks free and goes off-script after a domestic dispute call has him questioning his choices, his obligations, and his very existence.

Brushing off The Narrator is no easy feat for Jim. The Narrator is the voice of God in instructional videos, and there is no better actor for the role than Stacey Keach. His deep, gravelly-voice is so powerful that even as an adult, something about it makes you feel two inches tall. If fear & trembling is the mood that old testament God is always looking for when he made a grand entrance, he need only send Stacy Keach’s soul-piercing glare and bone-rattling baritone. But the movie isn’t all existential dread and grim examinations of domestic abuse, Jim also tackles the real problems of the day: Political Protesters Communists and Dungeons & Dragons Enthusiasts Satanists.

 

Survival Skills is a reality-defying black-comedy and an incredibly creative exploration into the grim realization that life is never as cut-and-dry as it might seem.”

 

Survival Skills is a reality-defying black-comedy and an incredibly creative exploration into the grim realization that life is never as cut-and-dry as it might seem. Quinn Armstrong perfectly recreates the feeling of an over-produced (half-baked) instructional video that thinks the world’s complicated problems are as simple as programming a Toshiba VCR or learning how to properly operate and maintain your brand new Nishika 3D Camera. And Vayu O’Donnell’s journey from a copy + paste policeman with a plastic smile to cynical doubting Thomas is a f*cking journey! His entire world is shattered, everything he’s come to understand is now meaningless, and laws that used to govern his actions have all been stripped away.

Survival Skills is one of the most mind-boggling, but still easily-digestible, pieces of cinema in recent memory. It’s like David Lynch by way of Charlie Kaufman. Armstong’s deconstruction of police procedurals and tactics sheds light on not just how trivial and ineffective policing is now, but how harmful and dehumanizing it has always had the potential to be. Survival Skills is a movie made to make you laugh and smile, but also raise an eyebrow and look around you. Cinema is meant to entertain but it will always, whether inadvertently or intentionally, hold a mirror to society. If we don’t admit every once in awhile that there is something terribly wrong, nothing will ever change and we’ll be trapped in a hell we helped create. Survival Skills is, hands down, one of the most creative pieces of filmmaking I have ever seen at the Fantasia Film Festival, and one of the most brutally honest depictions of a person’s struggle for law & order in a world of unrelenting chaos.

 

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Quinn Armstrong’s Survival Skills celebrated it’s International Premiere at the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival. Click HERE to follow all of our festival coverage, and be sure to let us know ho you would react if you discovered you were trapped inside an instructional video cassette over on Twitter, in the official Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!

 



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Review: SURVIVAL SKILLS
TLDR
Survival Skills is a reality-defying black-comedy and an incredibly creative exploration into the grim realization that life is never as cut-and-dry as it might seem. Quinn Armstrong perfectly recreates the feeling of an over-produced (half-baked) instructional video that thinks the world's complicated problems are as simple as programming a Toshiba VCR or learning how to properly operate and maintain your brand new Nishika 3D Camera. And Vayu O'Donnell's journey from a copy + paste policeman with a plastic smile to cynical doubting Thomas is a f*cking journey. His entire world is shattered, everything he's come to understand is now meaningless, and laws that used to govern his actions have all been stripped away. Survival Skills is, hands down, one of the most creative pieces of filmmaking I have ever seen at the Fantasia Film Festival, and one of the most brutally honest depictions of a person's struggle for law & order in a world of unrelenting chaos.
Story
85
Performances
100
Editing
100
Originality
90
93
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