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

 

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