Latest Entries »

With all the attention lavished on headliners like Halloween, Suspiria, Overlord, and Climax, I thought I’d offer a selection of some of the hidden gems I found at this year’s Fantastic Fest.

The Perfection

This midnighter subverted expectations in an entirely unpredictable way, and somehow makes cello playing a high stakes game. It’s also sufficiently gory and shocking to satisfy genre fans. An original, tense and clever tale of revenge. 9/10

Level 16

Dystopian science fiction story set in the near future about teen girls imprisoned and indoctrinated for a mysterious purpose. And two girls are about to break free and discover the terrible truth. Sci-fi is rare and good sci-fi on a budget is even rarer. 8/10

Laika

A whimsical stop-motion animated musical about Laika, the first dog in space, but in this version, Laika and her other animal friends from Earth find themselves on a happy, animal-friendly alien planet until a new species arrives with BBQ on their minds. Catchy tunes and a lighthearted story make this film noteworthy. 9/10

Knife + Heart

This stylish giallo set in the world of a 70s/80s gay porn film production company is so well done, it feels less like pastiche and more like a lost film from the era. It’s also kitschy and bloody in just the right amounts, without becoming parody. Giallo fans, don’t miss this. 8/10

Strike, Dear Mistress, and Cure His Heart

Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata is the inspiration for this drama about an older woman reconnecting with her adult daughter after abandoning them for her career as a concept pianist. It’s a deft parody of European melodramas with comically deadpan delivery of stilted dialog that make this a standout from the crowd of bigger films demanding your attention. 8/10

Advertisements

Fantastic Fest 2017 – Day 4

 

Love and Saucers

A documentary about David Huggins, a 72-year-old man who claims he lost his virginity to a UFO alien woman. No, this isn’t a comedy, but an ernest documentary about a true believer. The filmmakers present the man’s story and first-hand testimony at face value, without dismissing or confirming its objective validity. He claims he’s had sex many times with this alien, but he didn’t start “remembering” it until he read the alien abduction books by author Bud Hopkins, describing just this kind of close encounter. He’s also obsessively painting his experiences in oil and canvas, something that ultimately means the subject provided the visuals for the documentary to show while he’s describing his experiences. During the Q&A, the filmmakers say that they (and plead for the audience to) keep an open mind, but then they only tell you one side of the story. I want to believe. 6/10

 

All You Can Eat Buddha

A tourist shows up at a resort in Cuba and doesn’t do anything except eat at the buffet. Then miracles start to happen. Of course he interacts with the quirky guests and hotel staff, and a beached octopus. That would be a pretty good synopsis of All You Can Eat Buddha, which is quite a literal description of the main character, Mike, a rotund, bald man with a large appetite. The film has the look of a Wes Anderson production, if Anderson were taking Xanax and LSD at the same time. The film is surreal, and after a while, you’re not sure if the film should even be interpreted literally. The way scenes are framed and shot, the quirky characters, the hotel setting, all contribute to the Wes Anderson vibe. The film doesn’t have a plot in the conventional sense of the word nor does it explain where reality ends and the surreal begins. Still, the movie is LOL funny in places. 8/10

 

The Cured

This is the Ellen Page zombie movie of the festival. There was a claim going around Fantastic Fest crowds that The Cured is not a conventional zombie movie because the zombies can be ‘cured.’ The premise is that they retain all the memories from when they were zombies and are not in control of their actions. Legally, they were absolved of all criminal acts committed while they were infected. While this angle of the zombie story was very original, it’s just the premise, the rest is a rather conventional zombie movie, including the ending which was pretty predictable. Ellen Page gives a good performance as a young widow and mother in the post-cure world, but I ultimately think The Cured could have been a clever allegory for the power struggle between differnet social classes. But it’s just a zombie movie with a unique premise. 7/10

 

See You Up There

Sprawling and emotional epic set in post-WWI France, about love, art, and competing schemes to profiteer from the war. A late entry into this year’s festival, this was hands down the best movie of the festival, period. Yet ironically, it wasn’t on many people’s radars. It’s “too good for Fantastic Fest.” That’s not a slam against the festival, but an acknowledgement that this is still a genre film festival, not a TIFF, and See You Up There isn’t a genre film (except for a few scenes requiring special make-up effects). But I think it’s worthy of attention from the MPAA voters in the Best Foreign Picture category. Think of Bullhead or Toni Erdmann level good. Don’t miss it. This one gets a perfect score: 10/10

 

Vidar The Vampire

Meet Vidar. Devout Christian farm boy who dies and is resurrected into a vampire by Jesus Christ. I mean, right? This movie was selected because it ticked off almost all the Fantastic Fest genre icons. In other words, it’s the Samsung Galaxy of midnighters, if there was such a thing. But having all the boxes checked off doesn’t make for an entertaining-to-watch film. Despite a few good gags, it ran out of steam before the whole movie ends. And it just ended without any real closure. 4/10 

 

Fantastic Fest 2017 – Day 3

 

Junk Head

First, let me start by saying I would see Junk Head again at this festival, breaking a long time self-imposed rule about using my festival time slots for as many different films as possible. Why? Simply because I consider it a contender for my favorite film at FF 2017. This stop-motion animated sci-fi movie tells the story of a dystopian future where human life has been extended indefinitely through genetic manipulation, but at the cost of sterility (oops). So the humans send a probe down the subterranean depths to obtain fresh genetic material from the workers class who left the surface some 1200 years ago, and haven’t been seen since. Thus the stage is set for one of the most unique dystopian sci-fi visions I’ve seen in a while. The industrial production design is highly imaginative, reminding me a little of the movie Brazil (1986), and the once-human denizens who inhabit this underground world are both scary and hilarious. The story and tone fit the adventure perfectly, as does the stop-motion animation. If I were to describe it in one word, that word would be: “COOL.” 8/10

 

Haunters

This is a documentary about the recent trend in “extreme” haunted house attractions created by DIY haunters. These are not even haunted houses, but rather a full-contact assault on the patron: including activities that would be defined as kidnapping and torture in the name of terror and thrills. What, you didn’t know haunted houses have become passé and that thrill-seekers are now demanding to be (literally) waterboarded or fed shit until they vomit and pee in their pants? Neither did I. Frankly, I don’t even know why they call the documentary “haunters,” as there’s nothing spooky going on. Haunters covers its subject pretty thoroughly from different perspectives, and finds its narrative threads. 7/10

 

Juvenile

Youth and crime are the subject of this well-made drama about kids on the wrong side of the tracks. Blake Jenner stars as Billy, who is torn between his friendship with the Mikey, his violent criminal friend, and his blossoming romantic relationship with Jennifer (Melissa Benoist). Jennifer offers him a way out, while Mikey offers only a life of crime. Billy’s relationships are put to the test when a personal tragedy strikes. The story is pretty straightforward, but like Wheelman, works on the strength of the actors and creative (nonlinear) editing. A solid entry that is worthy of the crime genre. 7/10

 

V.I.P.

This film was an automatic pick for this time slot simply because South Korea has a long history of elaborate and clever crime dramas and procedurals unrivaled by any other country, bar none. And V.I.P. is no exception. It isn’t a procedural, however, as the police already know who the killer is. Instead, it’s a custody battle for the killer: a rather smug North Korean defector and the son of a high-level government official, who is ultimately under the protection of the CIA, and he knows it. From this basic situation comes several epic showdowns and battle of wits between the gruff Seoul Police detective, the South Korean Intelligence Agency, the CIA, and a mysterious agent from North Korea. Another masterpiece from the writer of I Saw The Devil. 9/10

 

REVENGE

A modern and less-exploitationy take the rape-revenge genre, Revenge adds new elements we haven’t seen, including a healthy dose of dark humor, gore, and body horror. Squirmy, in-your-face-I-dare-you-to-look gore. This keeps the movie firmly in modern horror genre territory, less grindhouse fare. The setup: a wealthy French businessman and his young American mistress are dropped off in a swanky remote desert vacation home for a weekend getaway. Then two of his hunting buddies show up a day early. I have no idea what they’re hunting in the middle of the Morroccan desert, but pay attention because you’ll probably see those rifles used later in this revenge movie (lol, wink). Yeah, despite the predictable setup, writer-director Coralie Fargeat still finds ways to make it interesting to watch, and you will want to see the payoff for the setup. I especially like the performance by actress Mathilda Lutz, who carries a good deal of the movie solo. The final 15 minutes are (quite literally) a bloodbath, but Fargeat still finds moments of levity in that. This is a strong contender for best midnighter at the festival. Believe the hype from TIFF. 8/10

Fantastic Fest 2017 – Day 2

Day 2, Friday. Things are definitely picking up after yesterday’s slow start. Enough fluff. Let’s get to the movies:

Hagazussa

This is an experience. Scene after scene washes over you like ocean waves crashing ashore. Each scene is vusal poetry. Beautifully composed, stunningly shot. Each scene contains three ever-present elements: (1) something that creates tension and unease, (2) new information–or perhaps merely the subtle suggestion of new information, (3) something unexplained, mysterious and intriguing. Together, a narrative slowly emerges about a woman living alone with a child in the mountains during a superstitous time. The sense of dread eventually gives way to some of the most horrific and disturbing imagery right up to the final scene, which offers no further explanation, but catharsis. This film’s abstract story telling and emphasis on lush cinematography recall recent festival films like Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Evolution or The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears. This one should not be missed. 8/10

 

Maus

This survival-horror-hostage drama set in modern day Bosnia tries to do too much at once, I think. A German man and his Bosnian girlfriend are stranded in the woods when they run into a pair of dangeous outdoorsmen with guns. If it was a convential survival-horror thriller, that would be fine. But it tries to make a statement about the ethnic violence (killings) during the Seriban-Bosnian civil war, which, OK, gets points for the being topical. I can handle a film with a very direct political message, but then there’s an alien monster whose objective reality is very much in question, because the film uses an unreliable narrator. Is it a real creature, or something the character is just imagining? This is perhaps where the storytelling stumbles because the answer to that doesn’t really matter, leaving this genre element irrelevant. As a filmmaker, you can only ‘cheat’ on the audience with the unreliable narrator once. After that, the audience no longer trusts what they are seeing, and are waiting for a reveal in the next scene. 6/10

 

Darkland

I think of this movie as “Danish Batman, With Consequences.” Zaid is a successful Iraqi-Danish heart surgeon with a pregnant girlfriend and goregous apartment home in Copenhagen. When his younger brother turns up dead for owing a local crime boss, Zaid finds himself guilt-ridden and hell-bent on revenge. The Dark Knight comparisons seem appropriate, but Zaid’s real-life masked vigilante makes mistakes that cause him to risk everything in his carefully constructed life. The film juxtaposes Zaid’s ironic turn as both a doctor and healer, and as an angel of death who wouldn’t hestitate to pull the trigger. For this reason, the story remained grounded on the “real life consequences” side of what would otherwise pass as a superhero origin story. It also covers the character’s immigrant origins and his place within Danish society. I found Darkland a surprise, its hard-boiled mix of drama and action worthly of inclusion into this year’s festival. 7/10

 

Wheelman

I don’t normally see films that I know already have a distribution deal (because I can see them after the festival). But I’m willing to overlook that for Wheelman, which is a solid crime thriller about a getaway car driver who is left holding the McGuffin after a bank job goes sideways, and he finds himself on the run, not (only) from the law, but also from the mob who wants the quarter-million in cash in the trunk of his BMW. On the surface, a lot of screentime focuses on the titular wheelman driving the nighttime streets of Boston shouting obscenity-laden exposition into his cellphone, but that storytelling format really works here on the strength of Frank Grillo’s performance as the driver. For the entire first two acts, everything is shown from cameras inside or on the car, filming the action looking “inside-out.” You fell like you’re in the car along for the ride. What’s better is that somehow they made car chases work without breaking out of the POV limitations of this format. Wheelman is coming to Netflix in October. I recommend it. 8/10

 

Radius

This a sci-fi mystery about a man who wakes up from a car accident with no memory of who he is or what happened to him, and everywhere he goes, there seems to be dead bodies, as if some kind of contagion was killing people around him. His only hope of solving this mystery is the young Jane Doe who tracks him down, also with no memory. It turns out she has a strange connection to him. This movie gets points for originality. The high-concept sci-fi story is intriguing, and offers opportunities for some pretty tense scenes. Ultimately, the film’s denouement offered a rather conventional (but still surprising) twist. Only the film’s acting was inconsistent in places (think “TV drama quality”). But the concept alone makes up for a lot of sins. 6/10 

Fantastic Fest 2017 – Day 1

It’s here!!! The event I’ve waited all year for. The only film festival worth crying about if I couldn’t go. And so begins Fantastic Fest 2017, the thirteenth year of the festival.

Day 1 is a odd one. For one thing, everyone’s here, or should be. I had to work right up until the start of the festival (by choice), but fortunately, all I needed was my trusty iPad Air and Wifi; I didn’t have to be at the office dealing with the usual office politics and minor drama. Just a few more emails pointing fingers… and done! Log off. Ahh…

What else makes Day 1 odd? For one thing, it’s Thursday, so I don’t believe everyone is here yet. Industry people, some filmmakers, and the mainstream press tend to hang out Friday – Sunday, and then skip town Sunday afternoon. After that, to keep the energy level high, the organizers of Fantastic Fest have created a sweet “Second Half Badge” for a fraction of the price of a normal pass, but you get to attend the last 4 days of this 8-day festival (although it’s Mon-Thurs). This makes up for the industry people leaving Sunday. And that’s par of the course for all film festivals.

But that’s for a normal year. This year isn’t normal because there’s no opening night film. Of course they had one booked well in advance, but the distributor of that film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missorui pulled it at the last minute, leaving the programmers to rejuggle the schedule. Longtime sponsor and festival partner AICN was also dropped as a sponsor, and long-time program director Todd Brown resigned last week. There’s a whole story about that which you read about here, but I won’t address it further in this post, maybe later.

Now, on to the films:

The Prince of Nothingwood

This documentary delivers exactly what it promises: a portrait of its titular star, Salim Shaheen, the “prince” of Afghani cinema, which as an industry is virtually non-existent, except for the particular no-budget action-melodramas made by Shaheen. He’s an actor, director, producer, singer, dancer, exhibitor, and all around larger-than-life story-teller, with an appetite, ego, and chutzpah to match. Director Sonia Kronlund also explores how the Afghan people, even the Taliban view Shaheen’s artistic efforts. A fascinating look at being a film auteur at the ends of the earth. 7/10

Thelma

This was easily the best film I saw at the festival on Day 1. It is a meticulously crafted tale about a haunted young college student with an undiagnosed condition that causes her to suffer from seizures, and that’s when mysterious things happen around her. It doesn’t help that these seizures seem to be brought on by emotional stress, and what could be more stressful than going off to live on your own for the first time, meeting new people, and falling in love? Thelma is both a coming of age movie and a mind-bending sci-fi drama. Tonally and thematically, it’s this year’s Raw. 7/10

Vampire Clay

This was my first midnighter of the festival. The goofy title should give you a good idea of what it’s about: modeling clay that eats hapless art students in a small-town art school in rural Japan. To raise the stakes, there’s a rivalry between the new girl and the others students for top spot in the art competition. And some sad backstory about how the teacher ended up in this small town trying to make her dream of opening her art school a reality. On paper, it’s got everything a J-horror fan needs: gore, a goofy concept, black comedy, gore, and some camp and melodrama. And it filmmakers mostly pull it off. The gore effects are serviceable, even charming for horror fans. Nothing really scary or original, other than ridiculous idea. The story is the weak point, and the story telling stumbles in places. 6/10

This is both a review of Colossal, the new film from writer-director Nacho Vigalondo, as well as a retrospective on where it fits into his growing body of feature film work. For a lot of people, Colossal will be the first time they’ve heard of him, or seen his work. And it’s a great place to start.

Colossal Review

colossal-poster

Colossal (2017)

First, let’s talk about Colossal. The movie opened this weekend in NYC, LA, and a few other select cities. If you saw the trailer, it kinda gives away the “secret” of the film. (I won’t give it away, so I’m not linking to the trailer, out of respect to the film). It’s the story of a young jobless woman, Gloria (played charmingly by the talented Anne Hathaway), who drinks too much and isn’t really in charge of anything that happens in her life or career. When her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens) kicks her out of his NYC apartment, she returns to her home town to get back on her feet. Without any real plan or grown-up responsibilities, she takes a job at a local bar owned by her old friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis). He owns a bar and she drinks too much. What could possibly go wrong? The unhealthy (platonic) relationship between Gloria and Oscar form the core of the story. There’s drama, there’s comedy. Oh, and Gloria has a mysterious connection to the giant monster (kaiju) terrorizing Seoul every night. As Gloria discovers herself and the power she has, it brings out a toxic masculine insecurity in Oscar, and the true nature of their relationship is uncovered.

This genre-busting female-empowerment film was screened at TIFF, Fantastic Fest, and SXSW, and was well received by audiences who have seen it. I’ve seen it twice and I love it. Hollywood would never make this kind of film. A monster movie about female empowerment? The studios would rather crank out another summer blockbuster sequel to pay the bills so they can fund dignified Oscar-contenders in the fall and winter seasons. But the stars aligned (literally; movie stars aligned), and we have Colossal. I’m especially happy to see pedigreed actors such as Hathaway and Sudeikis take a chance on it. They don’t just bring name-recognition to the project; they really make the characters come to life. And this is, at its heart, a character-driven film. The characters are what gives this movie gravitas, above and beyond the creature effects and the comedic timing, which are done very well.

The Works of Nacho Vigalondo

I’m also excited about this film because it is the perfect showcase for the talents of Spanish writer-director Nacho Vigalondo, who is no stranger to this type of genre-bending. From his early career shorts and experimental videos (many of which can be found in YouTube), Vigalondo has always had a flair for the fantastic and the whimsical. His stories work best when something magical happens to relatable characters. His characters are grounded in reality, even when the fantastic thing that happens to them is not. Take one of his earliest works, the Oscar-nominated short 7:35 in the Morning (2003). A woman walks into her favorite coffee shop, only to find everyone there suspiciously silent and unmoving…until a suicide bomber (played by Vigalondo) starts singing and dancing, and she finds herself the center of his attention. She’s a grounded character in a fantastic situation. And despite the Hollywood-level of production value and polish, Colossal retains those elements that make it uniquely Nacho. Colossal will give Vigalondo a boost in visibility and introduce a larger audience to his brand of interesting story telling. As a fan of his work, I’m excited about that. Colossal, is, if nothing else, an inflection point in his career, whereever that is headed. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Nacho Vigalondo at Fantastic Fest 2016

Nacho Vigalondo (center) channels his inner Fay Wray at the Fantastic Fest premiere of Colossal.

 

Feature Film Filmography

Timecrimes (2007)

Nacho’s feature film debut is the Spanish-language mystery-thriller about a man who finds himself stalked by a silent and menacing figure wearing bloody bandages. Then he meets a scientist with a time machine, which he uses to put things right, only to discover that he’s making things worse.

Extraterrestrial (2011)

If you enjoyed Colossal, check out Extraterrestrial, a quirky Spanish-language romantic-dramedy with a sci-fi twist. Julio and Julia wake up from a one night stand to the sight of giant flying saucers hanging silently over the major cities of the world. Despite the film’s title and sci-fi window dressing, the film isn’t about aliens or the flying saucers, but a comedy about the two star-crossed lovers, her clueless boyfriend, and a spying, jealous neighbor.

Open Windows (2014)

This puzzle-box mystery-thriller is Vigalondo’s English-language film debut. Nick (Elijah Wood) is a super-fan of movie star Jill Goddard (Sasha Grey). He thinks he’s won a contest to meet her, only to find that he’s been duped into some kind of twisted game in which both he and Jill are the would-be victims.

 

Rogue Fun

Rogue One: The Prequels Strike Back

(A totally spoiler-free review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story)

Let’s sum it up for the Twitter crowd:

Pros

  • A good prequel
  • Hardcore Fan service
  • Casual fan service
  • A more adult kind of Star Wars movie
  • Puts the “war” in Star Wars
  • Focuses on new characters
  • A crafted puzzle piece that fits well with the other episodes, particularly Episode IV: A New Hope
  • Adds more depth for certain returning Star Wars characters
  • Shows off some really good special effects

Cons

  • Not a “saga film” and isn’t about main saga characters or their their conflict
  • The Michael Giacchino soundtrack is good, but not very memorable
  • Some of the fan service scenes felt gratuitous. As in: “that’s cool, but is there a logical reason for that?”
  • Feels like a studio “fan film”
  • Some scenes depended on contrivances that felt phony

I was very impressed with Gareth Edwards’ first feature film, Monsters (2010), shot on a shoestring budget down in Costa Rica by a then-unknown Edwards. The film used home-made-on-my-PC special effects sparingly, but to great effect. The chemistry between the main characters during an alien invasion of Mexico was a story worth telling, and had a great payoff. His second film was the more tedious and forgettable Godzilla reboot starring a sprawling cast of cameos (which was frankly overproduced and poorly written).  But Edwards delivers the goods in Rogue One; the end result feels like Lucasfilm contracted him to make the world’s most expensive Star Wars fan film.

And what a fan film it is! Instead of the usual home light-saber battles found on YouTube, Rogue One combines a more modern, gritty, science-oriented realism to the Star Wars universe, while retaining the production design that seems to fit the aesthetic foundation established by George Lucas’ original Star Wars (Episode 4: AHN). The film’s pervasive use of Easter eggs and callbacks to other SW films and even the TV shows makes it feel like vital connective tissue between the Star Wars prequels and the original trilogy.i heard it compared to Joss Whedon’s Firefly, and that’s a really good comparison in more ways than one: it’s gritty sci-fi, and it’s about a crew of outlaws hopping planets fighting The Man.

If you’re just casually acquainted with Star Wars, as most people are, you’ll find this movie either awesome or disappointing, depending on what you expect from, and what you like about Star Wars. George Lucas was first and foremost a student of Joseph Campbell’s hero myth, and his Star Wars films are really more fantasy than sci-fi, and were heavily guided by the hero’s journey. As such, the Jedi, Sith, the Force, and their back stories were very archetypal. Their light saber duels and their codes of conduct made them more “space samurai” than sci-fi characters. If this quintessential to the Star Wars experience for you, you may be disappointed.

Now, there is also a sci-fi component to Star Wars: space battles, hyperspace, ray guns, and galactic politics. This is what Rogue One focuses on: the science behind the fiction. Ok, they gloss over plenty; this isn’t science-based fiction the way Andy Weir’s The Martian, or Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey are. We’re not getting an explanation of how the potatoes were grown on Mars, just that potatoes were involved. Rogue One makes real the people, engineering, and resources behind the creation of the Empire’s most important military asset: The Death Star. It also makes the Rebellion (who are mostly background characters in the saga film) the primary characters. No midichlorians, no Force Ghosts delivering exposition, no space samurai. Just a motley crew of misfits, rebel scum, and troublemakers and their fight to free the galaxy.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to mention that Darth Vader is in the film. While his scenes are few, they are absolutely some of the best in the film, and not just for fan service. He’s an important side character involved in the events surrounding the theft of the Death Star plans, which, (non-)spoiler alert: is the plot of this film. James Earl Jones’ creamy bass tones is a touchstone of the Star Wars movies, and worth the ticket price alone. Other character(s) from the saga trilogies make cameo appearances, courtesy of some groundbreaking special effects–to say who would be a spoiler. But I was both geeked out and delighted by what they did. Yes, I’m adult moved to tears by digital special effects what the hell is wrong with me.

And that would be OK, as this film is a more adult version of Star Wars. Gareth Edwards had described it as a “war movie,” inspired by the classic films from the 50s and 60s depicting daring WWII combat adventures. And it is. Besides being gritty in production design, it makes war look and feel gritty, ugly, tragic. Rogue One solves one of my biggest complaints about the George Lucas-directed prequels: that the combat was too sanitized, bloodless, and kid-friendly. Most of the conflict was between keystone-cop silly battle droids and disposable clone army who were born slaves to the Republic. As such, the death and destruction were centered on manufactured military assets, not innocent civilian casualties. War felt like a video game. I will give both Disney and Lucasfilm huge props for letting the writers and director take the film in this direction. The movie has the right mix of levity, adventure, and a dark tone. I wouldn’t describe the ending as dark, nilhilist, or sad, but that could be because I already know what happens next. If someone new to Star Wars saw Episodes I-III, then Rogue One before seeing Episode IV, they might find this movie kind of a downer.

The new characters have good chemistry, and I really enjoyed the space battles, particularly the one at the end. I didn’t think they could top the space dogfights from the previous Star Wars movies, but they did. You don’t need to have a trench run, pod race, or asteroid chase to feel a rush from a space battle. I found a few POV shots looked really good in Rogue One in 3D; I also saw the film in 2D and trust me: you’re not missing anything. The 3D conversion looks OK, no weird parallax effect, but mostly wasted in the vast majority of scenes.

There was a running joke in this season of South Park in which Trey Parker and Matt Stone shit all over last year’s Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. They criticized the film and/or the audience for liking it because it seemed to rehash classic elements of A New Hope. What would they make of Rogue One, an actual prequel set before the events in A New Hope? Does it get a pass for rehashing original trilogy material because it’s set during the time of the original trilogy? Or are we the audience victims of the “member berries” and deserving of meta-scorn for craving more from the same buffet of Star Wars characters, themes, and story lines? My opinion is that the audience has expectations about anything called Star Wars, and Disney is not going to ignore that, Parker and Stone’s metacriticism notwithstanding.

Disney and Lucasfilm say that how well Rogue One is received will help them decide whether they need to keep making saga films. Personally, I prefer saga films, so I was a little disappointed by what wasn’t in Rogue One. But having seen it a second time, I can say that it’s grown on me, now that I know what I’m going to get. I hope they continue make saga films, as long as the right filmmakers are involved in filling George Lucas’ proverbial shoes. But if this is the future of Star Wars, I’m in as long as they can continue to find good characters and stories to tell. 8/10

My rankings:

  1. Empire Strikes Back
  2. A New Hope
  3. Return of the Jedi
  4. The Force Awakens
  5. Rogue One
  6. Revenge of the Sith
  7. Attack of the Clones
  8. The Phantom Menace

 

 

Fantastic Fest 2016 may be history, but I’ve got more reviews… Here’s are my selections from day 7.

Nova Seed

Whoa. A hand-animated sci-fi feature from Japan. This labor of love is primarily the work of director/artist Nick DiLiberto, working over 5 years to bring his creation to life. The story is a sci-fi adventure about a sentient, anthropomorphic lion called NAC (“Neo Animal Combatant”), who is a genetically modified lion with human intelligence and the raw strength of a lion, and trained to be a solider. The president of Earth sends him on a mission to stop Dr. Mindskull, the villain who is planning to use a bioweapon against all of humanity. The results are impressive, given the small production. While not as slick or polished as CG or computer-aided animation, the hand-drawn look and feel have an honest, analog ernestness, reminiscent of classic films like Heavy Metal. You can see the attention to every line, painstakingly drawn. The pros: the artistry and effort involved is impressive. The bad: thin sci-fi story is about as deep as one episode of a 30-minute anime cartoon. 7/10

The Playground

This Polish film is the feel-bad movie of Fantastic Fest 2016. The film is simply a vingette of 3 middle school (junior high school) children on their last day of school. The film focuses on following two bullies, documentary-style, as they wreck havoc on convenient victims, for no apparent reason other than they’re sociopaths. One scene in particular was very disturbing, and I would not be surprised if it caused some people to walk out of the movie, once they get over what they’re seeing. For this reason, I found this the most challenging film to appreciate. “Liking” the film is probably off the table for most people. One way to appreciate it is to admire the sheer audacity and artistry involved in pulling off that notorious scene. That it turned people’s stomachs is a testament to the realism and technical skill involved. If it was any less realistic, you’d ironically be able to deal with it. I have heard that the film is an allegory for contemporary Polish political events, but I don’t know enough about that topic to comment on what it might mean. But it will get people talking. The good: The artistry involved. The bad: one difficult scene makes it hard to stomach. 7/10

The Untamed

This film from Mexico was a complete surprise. It’s mostly a family drama, except there’s an alien tentacle creature lurking in the shadows. And erotic alien tentacle sex. Since the movie starts with this, the rest of the film is a search for answers to the central mysteries and events that happen off screen (and therefore are a mystery to the main characters). The family drama centers around Alejandra, who is raising two young boys with her husband. Her brother is openly gay and works as a doctor in the local hospital, who meets Veronica, who has come in for treatment for a dog bite. It’s clear that Veronica isn’t entirely honest about how she was injured, because we saw Veronica having sex with a phallic tentacle at the start of the film. This kicks off a series of events which will tear the family apart. I liked that it was a family drama, and the sci-fi elements took a backseat. This is a movie that doesn’t answer every question, but will leave you wanting more. The good: A future cult classic in the making. The bad: Nothing. 8/10

The Autopsy of Jane Doe

A funeral home is the setting for this creepy horror/ghost tale featuring actors Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch as father and son medical examiners / undertakers who encounter mysterious and frightening events during the autopsy of an unknown young female corpse. The movie was a crowd pleaser during this year’s festival, and I predict it will do very well in a theatrical run followed by home video due to the grisly and explicit autopsy scenes (which were very realistic), followed by the more conventional frights later on. The film shifts tone three times. It begins as a mystery, turns into a body-horror “CSI-style” procedural investigation, followed by a haunted house segment, then finally a more conventional “battle” with otherworldly forces (aka, your typical Jason Blum-style scary movie). The more intellectually engaging start to the movie gives way to being chased by (well, let’s say “something creepy” to avoid spoilers) later on. Overall, I liked the movie, but found the second half trite and even predictable. The good: the original first half. The bad: the cliched second half.  7/10

The Greasy Strangler

The musical theme for this movie is drilled into my fucking head like an unwanted earworm, but other than that, The Greasy Strangler is easily the weirdest comedy/horror at this year’s festival. That’s in large part due to its oddball main characters: Ronnie (the foul-mouthed and crotchey old man) and Brayden (his unassertive and virgin adult son). Ronnie likes everything he eats served with an “unhealthy” amount of grease. Ronnie and Brayden spend an inordinate amount of time on-screen with their penises visible (one of several jokes that they ran into the ground). About the only time their penises aren’t visible is when they’re working as tour guides on a “disco walking tour,” where they wear matching bright-pink turtlenecks and make bullshit stories up. One day, Brayden meets Janet, and when they begin dating, it makes Ronnie jealous. Ronnie (who frequently denies being “the greasy strangler” even when nobody brought it up) covers himself in grease and murders people who annoy him. The violence and gore in this movie is cartoonish, which fits the tone of the film: oddball gross/funny. For best results, you should watch this movie while inebriated and with an audience who like insanely fucked up movies (in other words, at Fantastic Fest). The good: it’s really funny. The bad: every joke is repeated several times. 6/10

That chill in the air, is a rare event in Texas: fall. Yes, it was 95ºF when Fantastic Fest started last week, but if you’re still here, it’s now fall. Leaves don’t turn here, but it’s nice out when it’s not raining. Day 6 of Fantastic Fest was a great day, a good time to pace yourself for the final push. It’s easy to spot the 2nd Half Badge holders: they’ve got a great attitude at 11am, while I’m suffering from nearly a week of sleep deprivation. Here’s the run down for day 6:

Faultless

This French film is a character study of a deeply flawed person. Constance is single, in her forties, and out of work and homeless. She spends her days dreaming and scheming. Mostly scheming. A perpetual liar who tries to take advantage of every situation through manipulation and deceit. Her current scheme is to get hired back to her old job as a real estate agent after failing to make it in Paris. And the only way is to eliminate the competition: a younger, prettier rival who will work for commissions only. It’s only a matter of time before the lies and schemes come crashing down. The good: a fascinating character study of a train wreck in progress. The bad: Nothing comes to mind. 7/10

Short Fuse 2016

I loved every short in the horror shorts category this year. All deserved to be in the program. They were:

  • Dawn of the Deaf – slow build up to the joke
  • Curve – high concept surreal horror
  • The Stylist – skin crawling gore FX
  • They Will All Die In Space – a nihilistic sci-fi adventure
  • I Want You Inside Me – A woman’s boyfriend disappears during sex
  • Death Metal – buckets of blood
  • Overtime – a hilarious mash-up of Office Space and werewolves
  • 90 Degrees North – Probably the most hilarious and Twilight-Zoney piece about a man-eating crosswalk
  • When Sussurus Stirs – Little Shop of body horrors!

The Lure

You’ve probably heard of the Polish musical mermaid movie, and this is it. There are a number of original songs, as well as some well-known tunes, performed in this movie. They range from classic rock to pop to punk in style. Most songs were sung in Polish, but the tunes were catchy (even if the translated lyrics didn’t quite rhyme). This is the fucked-up, blood and sex, Fantastic Fest-worthy version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. Two young cannibalistic mermaid sisters go on vacation on dry land with their new human legs (except they don’t have the usual orifices that real humans have down there). The sisters are natural singers, (using their voices to lure men to their deaths), but decide to sing and party at a nightclub, whose owner promptly makes the mermaids part of the act. The good: catchy tunes, high energy, and lots of genre elements for the FF crowd. The bad: the story was underdeveloped, but sufficient for a musical. 8/10

Truth Beneath

Another big budget Korean crime drama. The teenaged daughter of a politician disappears during his run for office, and her mother searches for answers to her disappearance. Could it be tied to his political campaign? Is she still alive? Each time an answer is uncovered, a new mystery and more questions arise. I won’t say more than that without spoiling the movie, but suffice it to say that if you’re familiar with Korean crime dramas, you’ll be expecting twists, screaming and crying, and skeletons in everyone’s closets. I enjoyed it, but some people I spoke to at the festival felt it didn’t live up to their expectations. The good: it has a shovel-load of drama. The bad: It’s kind of long and the backstory quite complicated, and hard to follow at times. 7/10

100 Best Kills: Childbirth

Technically, this is not a screening, but an event. I’d already seen the other films in this time slot, so I decided to relax and enjoy an hour of clips from the worst childbirths deaths (including anything that bursts out of you in a blood soaked manner) in the movies, with a focus on the really obscure and cheesey ones. The emcee was handing out candied cigars to the first person who could name the movie that each obscure scene was taken from.

Monday is the start of the 2nd Half of Fantastic Fest. Crossing this line means we’re past the half-way mark of this 8 day festival. Some industry people have left and 2nd Half badge holders can begin seeing movies. It’s a great deal for the money at about 1/3rd the price of a Fan badge, you get to attend 1/2 of the festival. The only thing you miss out on usually is the opening night movie (Arrival, which was repeated during the 2nd Half!), first-half events, and voting for the audience awards has mostly ended. Mostly.

For those staying, it’s a chance to catch films you missed during the first half of the festival. Most films begin repeating during the second half (but there are 2nd Half exclusives like the Secret Screening, the Closing Night Film, and the Closing Night Party).

On to the movies!

Re:Born

This manga-inspired action movie is about the mysterious “Ghost”, a ninja-like warrior whose speed, stealth and fighting skills with a blade are unmatched. This action-packed film adaptation follows a martial-arts movie trope: ex-warrior who left a secret society of warriors is forced to go John Wick on his former comrades, clawing his way to the top boss, to rescue someone he loves. I just described the basic plot of this film as well as the Indonesian action movie that I saw earlier in the festival, Headshot. Unlike Headshot, this film’s fighting action wears thin quickly. It’s a few basic moves that involve attacking with different bladed weapons and a few finishing moves, which are then repeated ad nauseum through Act Three. Yes, I understand the main character has to encounter 100 faceless bad guys, but I don’t need to see him kill all 100 of them. Beyond poor editing, I could tell he wasn’t making contact with some of the bad guys during the fighting scenes, and that just ruins the illusion. The good: it’s fun to watch a human food processor slice and dice videogame enemies. The bad: the same fighting moves repeated too often. 5/10

Age of Shadows

Fantastic Fest likes to include large-budget, big-acclaim Asian films that are well done, and this year’s entry from Korea fits that billl. Age of Shadows is a spy thriller set during the Japanese occupation of Korea. It centers around a Korean police official who has joined  the Japanese Provisional Government’s police force, to discover and rout out the leader of underground Korean Occupation Resistence movement. The investigation inevitably results in a tense (and at times action-packed) spy-vs-spy thriller. The stakes go up when the leader of the resistance tries to turn the policeman–against his will. This has some of the best story-telling I’ve seen at the festival; it is not a police procedural or action movie like you might expect from James Bond. This is a drama above everything else: two sides, the stakes couldn’t be higher, and they are pitted against each other in a cat and mouse game where exposure means certain death. And the train sequence had everyone talking. Really one of the best films of the festival. The good: strong story, you wish it would never end. The bad: the movie had to end. 10/10 

Arrival

Oh, something rare happened! I saw the opening night movie in the 2nd Half, and I’m glad that I did, because I’d have to wait until November to see it (and also because Fan badges have a high probability of not getting in to the opening night film on opening night). I know, horrible, right? The scoop is that it’s a good, cerebral science fiction story with a literary foundation (it’s based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang). A liguistics professor with a top secret clearance is enlisted by the U.S. military to learn how to communicate with aliens who have parked 12 almond-shaped craft in the sky across the planet. The movie is similar in tone to Contact. It focuses on a duo of scientists (Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner) as they race against the clock to decipher the aliens’ language. The movie isn’t afraid to stick to the hard-science source material. We get to see the aliens (and thankfully they don’t look like Jodie Foster’s father), and their “language” is as mysterious as whale songs. It’s not an action movie. No space battles. Just scientists trying to solve a mystery. We get brainy, geeky exposition instead of explosions. I’ve heard it compared to Interstellar, but I think it is more of a sci-fi ideas movie, like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is a big studio picture that delivers the wonder and imagination of how first contact might happen. The good: it is fearlessly “hard” science fiction from a big studio. The bad: that is so rare. 9/10

Zoology

This Polish movie is the story of a shy, middle-aged single woman who is bullied and isolated because she is different. Natasha has a tail. It just appeared. Otherwise, she’s like any other person working in the procurements department at the local zoo. No explanation is given nor relevant to the plot. She has a tail, and only her doctors and her Orthodox Church preist seem to know. The locals in town have only heard rumors of a woman with a tail, but don’t know it is Natasha. This includes her elderly, superstitious mother, who think the rumored woman with a tail is in league with the devil. Things start to change when she meets a handsome young doctor at the hospital treating her medical condition… This is a low-key movie that you might overlook at the festival, but the fantastic elements serve to tell a very human and relatable story. The good: a film about finding and empowering yourself against bullies. The bad: the bullies won, and it’s likely to be overlooked at this festival. 7/10

A Dark Song

This slow-burn Irish movie is about a bereaved woman (Catherine Walker) who hires an occultist (Steve Oram) to perform some kind of dark magic ritual to see her dead son again. The movie is about the ritual, which requires them to be sealed inside a secluded house for many weeks, perhaps even months. The ritual requires performing many steps, some repeatedly, some quite dangerous, needed to prepare for the arrival of…something. This is a disquiting movie, and the ritual’s many strange steps holds your attention as you wonder what this could all be leading up to. The occultist’s motives also come into question. In the final act, we get the answers, but it’s not as satisfying as I thought it should be. It felt like the first 85% of the movie was the interaction between the two characters and the mysterious ritual that brought them together, but the last act became fairly conventional, even a cop out. The good: the slow build-up of the mysterious ritual. The bad: weak payoff underserved the first two acts. 6/10

 

%d bloggers like this: