Wednesday, October 05, 2011
Fantastic Fest Dispatch #3
Coming down the homestretch, only a few movies/events left to go over. See also: Dispatch #1
and Dispatch #2
- Extraterrestrial - So. Nacho Vigalondo. Best director name ever? Probably. But he's an institution at Fantastic Fest. You see him all over the place, and later in the night, he's usually drunk and very animated. Here at Kaedrin, we're big fans of his work. His 2007 film Timecrimes made my best of the year list, and is an entertaining and intricate time-travel story. He's also the director of numerous short films, including 7:35 in the Morning, which was nominated for an academy award (note to self: seek more of these out!)
As a followup to Timecrimes, Vigalondo started working on an even bigger, even more intricate script. Knowing that it would take a few years to get that going, he set about doing a film in the meantime, which brings us to Extraterrestrial. Julio wakes up in Julia's apartment with quite a hangover. After some awkward pleasantries, he seeks to depart... and that's when they notice. Cell phones, land lines, television, and the internet are down. And there's something, something massive, in the sky, sitting above Madrid.
It's a setup we've seen a million times before, but it doesn't play out like any other similar film. In a very real sense, this is similar to Melancholia in that the SF premise is only a catalyst for the human story. It is almost literally window-dressing. But unlike Melancholia, this movie remains awesome. It's twisted and funny. Really funny, actually. It's Nacho Vigalondo's take on the romantic comedy, and probably best of it's ilk that I've seen in a long time. It's perhaps a bit silly (it is a comedy, after all), but I think it works very well. It doesn't hit all of my personal buttons in quite the way that Timecrimes did, but in a big way, this is a more assured film, and I'm glad that Vigalondo has avoided the dreaded "sophomore slump". Highly recommended - if you get a chance, give it a watch. ***1/2
- The Day - I don't like post-apocalyptic movies. There are a few exceptions, but a filmmaker has to do a lot to make me overcome my disdain. In this film, we follow a group of 5 survivors as they attempt to make it past cannibal-infested land. They're carrying two jars of hope and faith (i.e. seeds), with which they hope to establish a semblance of civilization again. Of course, they get cornered and have to fight, and there are revelations and twists and turns and badass action sequences. In particular Ashley Bell was impressive as the female lead. Not quite Ripley, but clearly a conflicted badass. It's ultimately a fun film, but I always have nagging questions about post-apocalyptic worlds that are never quite explained. Fortunately, this film wisely chooses to completely ignore whatever caused the apocalypse, instead focusing on the struggle for survival. This mitigates the nagging question problem, though those issues still arise after the film ends. This sort of thing might hold it back from true greatness, but I'm also willing to go with it, and the film manages wring tension out of its premise. Good ending too. If you're a fan of post-apocalyptic movies, give it a try. **1/2
- 100 Greatest Kills - So I was sitting next to a guy during The Day whose name was Tron (apparently not named after the movie - he was born before it came out). Very nice fella, and he told me that I would LOVE this 100 Greatest Kills event. I didn't realize it, but apparently they take submissions for the best onscreen kills, and if you submit it, they'll play it during the event. That being said, they try to keep things obscure, though they do give the classics their due. When I first got in the theater, the lights dimmed, and they started playing Stairway to Heaven while showing all of the most famous death scenes. Great selections here, but this isn't really why you attend. They immediately started playing some truly obscure stuff (quite frankly, I don't remember any of these), including a series of kills from 80s VHS movies. Some of the kills were also quite disgusting. For example, in one of the video movies, a guy cuts open a pregnant woman, grabs the baby, screams, and throws it against the wall. This actually sounds a little more horrifying than it looks, as it's quite low budget and very poorly acted, so it comes off as being a little comical. But still disgusting. Some of the others were also pretty gross. Not helping was the little digital gizmo they had that let them play and replay death scenes, sometimes in excruciating slow motion. Examining the Scanners head explosion frame by frame was pretty darn fun. We also watched the Brad Pitt death from Meet Joe Black many times. The final clip was a 15 minute gorefest from another of those video movies from the 80s (seriously, how do people find these things?) and it was quite disturbing. But they gave out free copies of Tobe Hooper's Eaten Alive, so look for a capsule review of that during the 6WH... Overall, it's a really fun event. If you're not squeamish, it's highly recommended...
- Master Pancake Presents: Highlander - So this wasn't actually part of Fantastic Fest, but my Austin friends got me a ticket to see it and I cleared my schedule that night to see it. For the uninitiated, Master Pancake is basically like MST3K, but it's performed live. The three guys that do it are very funny, and it's actually quite a production. They start off with a simple introduction and banter, set up a drinking game (in this case, you have to drink anytime sparks appear on screen - and if you've ever seen Highlander, you know that anytime a sword strikes something, it emits sparks, so there was a lot of drinking), and then launch into the film, with a brief intermission and skit performed live onstage in the middle of the film. Lots of mocking, especially of Sean Conner's unbelievable performance as Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez (seriously, he plays this Egyptian Spaniard without even attempting to maks his Scottish accent). Very funny, and a great time. If you're ever in Austin, it's well worth trying to get yourself a ticket for Master Pancake! Thanks again to Kaedrin reader and friend Spencer!
And that about covers what I saw at Fantastic Fest. I saw 19 movies, went to 4 events, and of course, Master Pancake too. I won't go through the pomp and circumstance of a full awards post, but here are a few:
All in all, quite a successful festival. Will I go again next year? It would certainly be really nice, but I'll have to see what my schedule is like (not to mention money, vacation time, and so on). I definitely want to go to the festival again sometime, as I did have a blast... And that concludes my Fantastic Fest posting. Regular 6WH
posts to resume this weekend (this week's theme: Val Lewton horror!)
Sunday, October 02, 2011
Fantastic Fest Dispatch #2
As mentioned in the first dispatch, Fantastic Fest was quite a hectic but fun week for me. I don't really have much to say in terms of an introduction, but there are some thoughts on the festival itself interspersed with the movie reviews below. Also, just to mention that this technically represents the second week in my annual 6 Weeks of Halloween
horror movie marathon. It doesn't take the general form of most 6WH posts, but there's plenty of horror and weirdness below, so enjoy! See also: Dispatch #1
and Dispatch #3
- 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.
The opening of the film is actually brilliant. It's very arty and experimental and whatnot, but also compelling and visually spectacular (it also doesn't appear to fit in with the timeline of the rest of the film). From there, the movie rewinds, focusing on a wedding between Justine (Kirstin Dunst, apparently recommended to Von Trier by PT Anderson!) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård, True Blood fame). At first, it seems like a typical rich folks wedding reception at a huge country club, but it soon becomes clear that there are deep problems in the family, and Dunst's character is suffering from chronic depression. This part of the film is somewhat insufferable. After the wedding, we find out that there's another planet (unironically called planet Melancholia) that is on a collision course (or perhaps just a close flyby) with Earth. That is quite an interesting concept, but the film only really uses it as window dressing - something that sets off the depression amongst the family. I'd be curious about the actual physics of all this. For a time it does come off as being plausible, though there is one event towards the end that I couldn't come up with a feasible explanation for... but again, this isn't really the film's main point.
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.
At first, I was a little worried about the political posturing of the film. For example, early in the film, the voiceover decries the political left. It's a seemingly typical sentiment among law enforcement: liberals make it hard to do their job. Later in the film, you start to see the corruption on the police side of things. And finally, the film reaches an equilibrium, not endorsing either side, but rather, emphasizing that both sides must work together in order to succeed. It's an interesting, well considered position, and films that can pull off that balancing act are few and far between. Oh, and there are also good characters and even some decent action sequences. I really enjoyed this film, one of my favorites of the festival. This is apparently the second film in a series, so I'll have to seek out the first film, because this was really fantastic. ***
- 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.
Anyway, Brandon Routh is absolutely hysterical here, and if you ever get a chance to watch this short, go for it (a quick search did not yield any videos, but perhaps it will be available someday). ***
- 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!)
Whew, I still have a bunch of other things to write about (including a review of Nacho Vigalondo's excellent Extraterrestrial
), but this entry has already grown to mammoth proportions, so I'll save that for Wednesday, perhaps along with some other thoughts about the festival. After that, the 6 Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathon will resume as normal.
Added some images to this post. Fixed some typos. Added links to other FF dispatches.
Sunday, August 21, 2011
A couple of weeks ago, I bit the bullet and booked my trip to Fantastic Fest
, a movie festival focusing on genre film (mostly horror, fantasy, SF and action). It takes place in Austin, TX and is primarily held at a couple of big theaters there, notably the Alamo Drafthouse (I've never been to one, but from all reports, they're great). Everything I've heard about this festival is that it is amazing, especially for genre-hounds like myself (and this year's festival aligns pretty well with the beginning of my annual 6 Weeks of Halloween
They haven't announced the schedule yet (and they should totally get on that), but they have released a bunch of the movies that will be showing. I'm really psyched to see a bunch of these films. Many genre films and filmmakers don't get wide releases, so it will be really nice to be ahead of the game on some of these. Even more interesting is the fact that I haven't heard of the grand majority of the films announced so far, which hopefully means I'll be discovering some films that I wouldn't normally have even had the chance to see. Again, they haven't announced the schedule, but I figured I should take a look through the two blocks of released titles to see what I'm interested in. I suppose there's no real guarantee that I'll get to see all the films I want, but I'm definitely hoping to catch up with most of these films:
- Extraterrestrial - The premise of this one sounds mildly lame - it's another alien invasion movie, this time told from the perspective of a guy with a hangover. Or something. But it's directed by Nacho Vigalondo (best director name ever?), who made Kaedrin favorite IMDb - Timecrimes a few years ago. I love that movie, so I'm hoping this one will overcome its cliched premise.
- The Innkeepers - Basically a haunted house movie. But that subgenre seems ideally suited for writer/director Ti West, another Kaedrin favorite and director of The House of the Devil.
- Let the Bullets Fly - Apparently a very successful Chinese film starring Chow Yun Fat. It's set in the 1920s on a train and seems to be a parody of westerns, or something.
- Pastorela: A Christmas Play - A movie so obscure I can't find it on IMDB. I'm a sucker for Christmas horror though, and it seems like that's what this one is getting at: "When Chucho (Joaquín Cosio) loses the beloved role of Satan in the town’s Christmas play and tries to reclaim the part, all hell breaks loose and an epic battle between good and evil begins."
- Snowman's Land - Ah, I see what they did in the title there. Another typical premise - the hit man's one final job. Still, looks interesting...
There are, of course, lots of interesting looking films that have been announced, and I'm sure I'll see a ton of films while I'm there, but I'm really looking forward to several of the above films.