- Fantastic Arcade Story In Videogames - One of the neat things about Fantastic Fest is that it's not all movies all the time. Over at the Highball, they set up something called the "Fantastic Arcade". Filled with Free-Play arcade cabinets and various PC/PS3/X360 machines, you could just wander around and play games all day if you wanted. There was a nice indie-game competition as well. And there was even a series of panels surrounding various issues in gaming. This particular panel was all about how to work story into video games, and it featured a team from Lightbox Interactive (makers of the forthcoming Starhawk) and a couple of filmmakers, including best-director-name-ever (and apparently a Fantastic Fest institution) Nacho Vigalondo. The panel started off a bit like an advertisement for Starhawk, but as with any panel featuring Nacho Vigalondo, things derailed pretty quickly and thus became much more interesting. They discussed the preponderance of cut-scenes and the inherent challenges of video games, especially how video games tend to put players "on rails" and the ways around that. Then Nacho started talking about how the Angry Birds are actually the villains in that game (terrorists?), thus kicking off a 15 minute digression into the various incongruities of Angry Birds, including the architectural style of the pigs (their structures often seem pretty impressive at first, but then you realize that they've sometimes just completely surrounded a pig in the structure, essentially burying it alive!) All in good fun. I had to leave a little early to catch my next movie, but it was definitely a lot of fun.
- Melancholia - The best part of this movie was the 15-20 minute interview with director Lars von Trier that preceded the film (he was not there in person as he apparently does not fly, but had participated in a Skype interview earlier in the day). He was very open and honest and even quite funny. The film, on the other hand, was a bit of a mess. I shouldn't say that, as von Trier certainly knows his way around the camera, and the film is, as always, immaculately composed and shot. The story, on the other hand, is quite unfulfilling.
At one point, I thought maybe there would be a twist that the characters were actually on Melancholia, and that it was the Earth that was appearing in the sky, but that doesn't pan out. However, the film does seem to be set in an other-worldly location. They mention a nearby town, but for the most part, the entire movie is set on the grounds of a golf course/country club, and after the wedding, there really aren't any other characters that show up. It's a really bizarre setting for the film, which could have been fine, but I don't think it was really in service of anything. The final sequence of the film is also pretty great, but not enough to make up for all the stuff that happens in between. Again, very well made, but didn't really do much for me. **
- Beyond the Black Rainbow - Very experimental and trippy, like a slower version of the end of 2001, drawn out over 110 minutes. The story, inasmuch as there is a story, is about a young girl who is seemingly trapped in an institute that bills itself as a technological cure for various mental maladies (or something). Who is she? Why doesn't she talk? Why can't she leave? What's going on at this institute? What's with the girl's doctor? These questions aren't really answered, but you do get a series of dreamlike vignettes that are visually interesting, if not really spectacular. As if the film wasn't trippy enough, at one point, we get a flashback where one character does acid, after which we're treated to a 10 minute scene where he's submerged in black liquid and his face melts (Spoiler? Not really.) Things get more interesting towards the end of the film. We see that the girl (and her doctor) seems to have some sort of mental powers, and the film becomes something of an escape film. But that's probably giving it too much credit for plot. There is a narrative, but it seems more appropriate for a 15 minute short than an almost 2 hour film. I don't hate this film. It's got some merits and I'm glad I got to watch it, but it's also not a particularly good film either. **
- Knuckle - There were only two documentaries playing at Fantastic Fest, and this was one of them. It follows 12 years of a violent feud between two (or maybe three) Irish Traveler clans. Most of this is accomplished via bare-knuckle fighting (officiated by third party clans). Interestingly, the documentary seems to have come about by accident. Director Ian Palmer was hired to videotape a wedding, and from there, the various Traveler families (especially the Quinn McDonaghs) allowed him to tag along at the various fights and tape them for their own records. It seems that the feuding families often produced video tapes taunting the opposing family and sending for representatives at the next fight. After 12 years of this, Palmer compiled everything together, did some additional interviews, and made this movie. Videotape isn't exactly a high-quality medium, but in this case, it's an accurate representation of what was happening and everything was very well documented. Ultimately, the film plays out like a microcosm of all human conflict. The two main families in the film are actually blood related, but their feud goes back decades, and few are interested in ending the conflict. Listening to various family members talk about it is almost heartbreaking, not just because these two families seem to be locked in a circle of violence, but because we can so easily recognize the pattern. You can see this sort of needless conflict all throughout history and even in present day conflicts. It might be too presumptuous to apply it to something as controversial as the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but like I said, the movie is a microcosm. It's a much smaller conflict, but it still seems hopeless, especially when Palmer cuts to young children playing in the street, pretending to fight. It is not a perfect movie, but it was one of the more interesting and thought provoking films of the festival. ***
- Fantastic Debates! - After Knuckle came the Fantastic Debates, an annual tradition wherein two folks participate in a traditional verbal debate, then box for two rounds. This year's debates featured two hobbits debating the benefits of World of Warcraft, two comedians debating whether robots were better than humans, an astrophysicist debating the "fuck Nasa" guy (I'm not generally a violent guy, but I enjoyed seeming him get an ass whooping), and finally, the main event, Alamo Drafthouse mogul and FF organizer Tim League fighting James Quinn (the undefeated bare knuckle brawler from Knuckle) over the topic "Texans are tougher than the Irish" (I particularly enjoyed the way League was able to argue his point while at the same time kissing Quinn's ass). It was all great fun, and there are numerous vids covering the event on youtube. This is the sort of event I'd love to go back in time and watch from previous years. The only drawback to the event was that an apparently great movie was scheduled at the same time, and didn't have any other showings during the festival. Dammit.
- The Corridor - Four lifelong friends go camping in a remote area and discover an impossible hallway in the woods. They've been the best of friends, but things are changing. They're getting older, balder, crazier, and so on. It hits the two main tropes pretty hard. I mean, how many movies about old friends camping do we really need to see? The early-mid-life crisis stuff is a little less trodden, but still a pretty common thing, and the film is a bit too on the nose with some of its commentary on that subject. That being said, the actual corridor piece is pretty interesting, and there are quite a few creepy sequences that result from that. It was actually well made and acted, and I did enjoy watching it, but I think I would have appreciated a little less cliche in the script. **
- Elite Squad: The Enemy Within - One of the frustrating things about film festivals in general is that you don't always get into the popular screenings. But at Fantastic Fest, this can be a blessing in disguise. I had originally planned to see the "Secret Screening" at this time, but it was sold out. I later learned that the secret screenings are generally not very interesting (I was expecting some crazy movie I never heard of, but it was apparently Paranormal Activity 3, which will be out in wide release in less than a month). So I had to "settle" for this film: a most excellent Brazilian film about police corruption. It would actually make a nice companion to City of God. That film was told from the perspective of children growing up in a violent neighborhood. This film is told from the perspective of the police.
- Karate Robo Zaborgar - Another film that wasn't my first choice, but which wound up being one of my favorites of the festival. It's apparently a loving remake/parody of a 70s Japanese television show about robots, karate, and, of course, sexy lady cyborgs. I don't think I can sufficiently explain the pure insanity on screen here, but it's got everything you want out of a Japanese comedy film. You've got motorcycles transforming into robots (apparently the original series was part of the inspiration for Transformers), a ludicrous love story, a group of down-on-their-luck former police officers called "The League of Smiles", and, of course, someone lights their fart as a form of propulsion. Again, difficult to describe, but I was laughing the entire time. Well worth a watch, especially for fans of Japanese robot cinema! ***
- Borderline - A French film following a beaten down family man and lawyer who stumbles on a bag of drugs, and decides to start selling it to make ends meet. Of course, the original owner of the bag eventually tracks him down, and things go downhill from there. It may not sound like the setup for a pure comedy, but it's quite funny, though it gets a bit dark later in the film. Still, a very solid movie. Not quite as uproariously funny as Zaborgar, and actually quite tame for a festival like this, but it's a fun film. **1/2
- Juan of the Dead - One of the most popular films of the festival, this Cuban zombie film is quite funny. Unfortunately, just by virtue of its title, it forces comparison to the nearly perfect Shaun of the Dead, a film that's better than this one. That being said, there's a lot to like here, and it was definitely one of the funnier films of the festival. Like most zombie films, it doesn't really have much direction, but it's actually got some well drawn characters and some decent arcs that elevate this movie above a lot of other zombie movies. I'm not typically a big fan of zombie movies, but I really enjoyed this and it's definitely worth seeking out. Also of note, director Alejandro Brugués has challenged Fantastic Fest mainstay Nacho Vigalondo to a Fantastic Debate next year (with the topic of "What the fuck is Timecrimes about?". I guess this means I'll need to go back next year! ***
- Cost of Living (short) - I didn't go to any of the film shorts programs that Fantastic Fest had, but they do show some shorts in front of movies, and this one was so good that I had to call it out. It's about two security guards who work at some sort of science institute. Basically one of those places that only exist in video games that create mosters, which of course get loose and start wreaking havoc.
- The Squad - A squad of Columbian soldiers comes upon an outpost suspected of being attacked by guerrillas. What they find is less than clear. A cryptic outpost log sheds no light, and then someone discovers a lone, traumatized survivor in a room that has been sealed off by bricks. Rumors quickly abound that she's a witch that caused the destruction of the outpost. It's actually a somewhat interesting premise. Unfortunately, the entire thing is bungled. I never got a sense for any of the characters, the layout of the outpost and surrounding environs was very poorly established, the squad does not act like any military unit I've ever seen, and everyone actions like an idiot. This is a movie that relies heavily on character interactions, but I feel like we were missing a lot. I didn't care about or like any of the characters, yet the dialogue assumes that we do. All throughout the movie, people keep talking to this one character, Ponce, as if we know who he is or care about him in any way, but of course, we don't. The entire film is framed in medium shots and closeups, and most of the camerawork is handheld and shaky. It's also got some weird depth-of-field issues. All of these things can be effective if used for a specific reason in specific situations. They can emphasize the isolation of the characters or the chaos of battle, but when they're used this often, they yield diminishing returns and only serve as a distraction. The story is almost non-existent. There's clearly some traumatic history for this squad, and the film references it numerous times, but I ultimately found that I could really care less. It wasn't scary, there's no real plot, and its atmosphere suffers because of it. There is actually quite a nice final shot in the film that I really liked, but it was too little too late. My least favorite film of the festival. *
- Let the Bullets Fly - I know a lot of critics say this, and it seems absurd, but watching 4-5 movies a day can be exhausting. By the time I got to this movie on the fifth day of the festival, I was starting to flag. It's a lighthearted action comedy starring Chow Yun Fat and featuring an intricate, Yojimbo-like plot. I have to say, it seemed like it was a ton of fun, and I did enjoy myself, but I was clearly fatigued. Maybe it was just that The Squad sucked so bad, or maybe it was because I'd just seen, like, 5 subtitled movies in a row and this one had really quick dialogue, or perhaps I had too many late nights and early wakeups. I was exhausted at this point. I watched the whole movie and managed to enjoy it, but it's something I want to revisit at some point when I'm more refreshed. I'll refrain from rating it at this point, but it did seem like a good film, so check it out.
- Fantastic Fest Awards - So I was very tired, but this sort of event re-energized me a bit, or perhaps I just got my second wind. There were lots of various awards handed out, including awards for bumpers, which takes some explaining. Most film festivals feature a short promo for the festival itself at the beginning of each screening. That short film is called a bumper. It's usually the same short film, over and over again, but Fantastic Fest is different. They select a theme (this year's was Altered States, which most people took to mean drugs), then accept submissions from local filmmakers, and we wind up seeing a different bumper before each showing. Some are funny, some are disgusting, some are just plain bizarre. The winning bumper was one of the disgusting ones which basically depicted a vasectomy. It was certainly shocking, but quite frankly, it was rather stupid and didn't demonstrate any talent on the filmmaker's part (the way most of the other ones do). Anyway, they also gave out awards for a bunch of films and short films, and it seems that You're Next was a big winner, much to the chagrin of its producer, who had to accept all the awards. At this point, I should note that the awards were basically big beer mugs, and in order to accept the award, you have to chug it... so this guy basically had to chug 5 mugs of beer within about 15 minutes. It was all pretty funny. This was a fun event, but I'm not sure it'd be something I'd want to go to every year (if I went to the festival every year). On the other hand, it was exactly what I needed at this point in the festival.
- The Fantastic Feud - So every year, they do this horror trivia challenge, pitting international filmmakers and critics against American filmmakers and critics. The whole thing takes the format of family feud, and it's quite fun. The only real drawback was that it was really short this year, like only 40 minutes long (apparently previous years were much longer and even more fun). I had a great time, but as previously mentioned, I was exhausted, so I was almost glad to be finished for the day... Still, it was one of my favorite events, and definitely something I'd do again (if I ever go again!)
Update 10/5/11: Added some images to this post. Fixed some typos. Added links to other FF dispatches.