The terrific Fantastic Fest genre film festival, hosted by the Alamo Drafthouse, wrapped up last week in Austin, Texas. Here’s a short wrap-up of all the films I was able to catch while there. Only a few Asian-related ones (several of the others had already been screened by Subway this summer, like TOKYO GORE POLICE), but overall a great lineup, and a fun festival overall.
TOKYO! – two out of three ain’t bad. This high-profile anthology film features mostly Japanese casts in mixed-genre stories about Tokyo life. Unfortunately, the one that tries to concern itself the most with the city (the middle episode “Merde,” from French director Leos Carax) is the worst, and difficult to sit through. But the opening episode from Michel Gondry (“Interior Design”) more than makes up for it, telling a heartbreaking but beautiful story about a young girl (Steven Seagal’s daughter Ayako Fujitani) who comes to the city but finds herself feeling unbearably alone. Seguing into magical realism toward the end, and featuring a cast composed of big-name Japanese stars, it’s worth seeing the movie for this segment alone. What a treat, then, that Bong Joon-ho’s final segment (“Shaking Tokyo”) is also pretty damn good, about a middle-aged hikikomori (shut-in) who needs an act of nature to get him to change his life. Think of it as two excellent short films with an extra-long intermission.
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE WEIRD – the long-awaited “kimchee western” from A BITTERSWEET LIFE and TALE OF TWO SISTERS director Kim Ji-woon, which was featured heavily in the ACTION BOYS documentary we screened at NYAFF this summer. And as expected, the stuntmen are the true stars of the movie, no surprise for a film that reputedly used every single stuntman working in Korea at the time. It certainly shows onscreen, with some of the most jaw-dropping action sequences I’ve seen in recent years. But it’s also clear that this is what inspired Kim to make the movie, as it pretty much plays out as a series of great setpieces strung together by a threadbare plot that’s little more than a remake of THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (and other Italian westerns, with a bit of THE ROAD WARRIOR thrown in for good measure). Song Kang-ho (THE HOST), playing “the Weird,” does his best to liven things up, and his performance manages to rescue several scenes that threaten to overstep the boundary between homage and rip-off, and overall the movie is marvelously entertaining, but just a bit disappointing for something that took so long to make and cost more than any other South Korean film in history.
GACHI BOY – another disappointment. This big-budget Japanese comedy felt more like a TV show than a feature film, despite its promising premise of a MEMENTO-like memory-loss victim who takes up amateur wrestling as a way of restarting his life following an accident. But with slow pacing, jokes that don’t quite work, and an overlong running time (also a problem with GBW, above), it quickly grated on my nerves.
Pink Eiga retrospective – this was a program I presented with Jasper Sharp, whose BEHIND THE PINK CURTAIN encyclopedia of Japanese sex cinema was launched at the festival. We screened four pink films, each from a separate decade, and I think it all went pretty well. For more details, see here.
SEVENTH MOON – not really an Asian film per se, but an American production directed by one half of the BLAIR WITCH PROJECT team, shot and set in rural China. But why?, I kept asking myself. One of the worst films I watched, this is a by-the-numbers story about a young married couple out of their comfort zone and trying to survive the night while being stalked by strange, supernatural creatures. The Chinese setting serves no purpose other than to make it more difficult for them to understand what’s going on, something that could have been achieved by setting the film in any number of other locations. Muddily shot on digital video and taking place almost entirely in the dark, this one was a trial from start to finish.
And now for the non-Asian selections…
ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO – Kevin Smith’s new comedy, which was also the opening night film. This one is about two Platonic friends (omnipresent Seth Rogan and Elizabeth Banks) who decide to shoot a sex film as a way out of their no-money situation. Intermittently funny, it’s never as filthy or transgressive as I think the filmmaker considers it to be, and in the end it’s just forgettable. For KS fans only.
ASTROPIA – another light-hearted comedy with a sexual element, but this time from Iceland. Iceland?! Yes, indeed, and the filmmakers are calling this the first commercial film ever made in that country, at least in recent years. It’s certainly a far cry from arthouse fare like COLD FEVER or 101 REYKJAVIK, shot on a miniscule budget and about a mainstream young woman who starts working in a role-playing game shop in order to make ends meet. One of the main geeks who frequent the store takes a liking to her, a humorous criminal subplot is introduced, and you can tell where things go from there. Innovative in its combination of fantasy and reality, and really hooked into the subculture it represents (what other film features in-jokes from Warhammer 2K?), it’s light fun and goes down easy.
CARGO 200 -the feel-bad movie of the festival! From successful Russian filmmaker Alexei Balabanov (BROTHER), this one tanked in its home country but ought to find an appreciative audience abroad among adventurous viewers, like Balabanov’s amazing 1998 period psychosexual drama about the birth of cinema, OF FREAKS AND MEN. Like that previous film, this one’s an ensemble tale but set in the period just before the birth of glasnost and Mikhail Gorbachev. The events depicted in the film are best discovered when you watch it, but they concern a young woman who’s abducted by a government official, an atheist university professor who begins to doubt his worldview, a rural couple implicated in a shocking crime, and the horrible, slimy hypocrisy of people in general, right at the dawn of what most Russians consider their emergence from the dark ages. Any surprise that audiences stayed away from this one at home? By the way, the title refers to the code name used by the government to refer to soldiers’ corpses being returned home from the war in Afghanistan. Yeah, fun stuff here. The small DVD label Disinformation picked this one up for the US market, one of the first nonfiction features they’ve acquired.
EX-DRUMMER – another feel-bad flick, this time from Belgium. Based on an ambitious novel, it follows an elitist writer who decides to go slumming one day and mess around with the lives of a trio of misfit losers who’ve formed a punk band. While it doesn’t quite descend to the depths of soul-crushing horror depicted in CARGO 200, it comes mighty close, depicting mass murder, anal rape played for laughs, infanticide, drug use, sexual terror, gay bashing, and hardcore sex. But it leavens its nihilism with a great soundtrack and stylish cinematography. A breathtaking debut from first-time feature filmmaker Koen Mortier, and amazingly still undistributed in the US.
REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA – SAW sequel director Darren Lynn Bousman’s dream project (co-conceived with composer and writer Terrance Dzunich) languishes in the same distribution hell that blew the release of MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN and THE BURROWERS (see below): stuck in-between studio heads at Lionsgate. But it may affect this film least of the three, as it’s a cult hit waiting to happen, a dark and bloody musical camp-fest starring Anthony Head from BUFFY, opera diva Sarah Brightman, Paul Sorvino, DEVIL’S REJECTS star (and TEXAS CHAINSAW 2 Chop-Top!) Bill Moseley, Nivek Ogre from Skinny Puppy and yes, Paris Hilton, whose face actually falls off at one point in the film. Set in a future society where people are addicted to both cosmetic surgery and an illegal painkiller created from corpse-fluid, it’s MOULIN ROUGE for the horror and Goth set, and a hell of a lot of fun. It’s definitely a love-it-or-hate-it proposition, and you’ll know in the first two minutes which side of the fence you fall on. I was a bit skeptical at the opening, but the songs get better as the movie goes on and by the midway point, I was hooked and can’t wait to see it again.
LEFT BANK – glossy Belgian thriller about a young woman who moves in with a new boyfriend across the river in the newly-gentrified “left bank”. An apartment building built on land with a mysterious and spooky history, paranoia about the people around her and wounds that won’t heal point to trouble on the horizon. Pretty by-the-numbers and not very scary, it’s predictable up until the final scene, which veers so far off into left field that it alienated most of the audience in the screening where I saw it. Despite this, it doesn’t add up to very much.
SAUNA – Fantastic Fest loves to pull in entries from all over the globe, and this Finnish horror tale is no exception. Gorgeously shot and set in the 16th century (!), it follows two brothers who are on a joint Swedish-Russian expedition to determine the new borders between their countries. One brother is a veteran of the recently-ended wars with double-digit deaths on his conscience; the other is a scholar with a sensitive disposition. Out in the northern wilds, they come across a village that shouldn’t be there, located in the depths of an unmapped swamp and inhabited by the cleanest peasants any of them have ever seen. The cleanliness comes from a sauna the village is guarding, not only as a place for baths and restoration but also for bathing the dead. And of course, something lurks in the sauna that nobody quite understands, but it’s malevolent and hungry. While this sounds like it could come off very silly, it’s actually incredibly moody and effective. Things turn bloody toward the end, but for the most part the film is a well-acted, slow-burning study of both the characters and the current of the times, between peace and war. It’s a heady film at times – nothing is really explained in the end – and covers BIG topics like God, faith, religion, death, war, guilt and brotherhood. But it’s a unique film in both its setting and ambitions, and will hopefully find a US distributor and audience patient enough to discover its secrets. It’s a big step up for the director, too, whose previous film was the oddball Finnish martial arts hybrid JADE WARRIOR.
JCVD – Grady pretty much summed this one up in his previous post, and I loved it, too. You will believe a fallen star action hero can actually turn in a great performance, and make you cry.
THE BURROWERS – the new film from SOFT FOR DIGGING and S&MAN director J.T. Petty, being billed as a horror western with monsters that owe a debt to TREMORS. Unfortunately, going into the movie with expectations like that will lead to disappointment, as J.T. has created a unique genre hybrid that doesn’t really satisfy the requirements of either the western or the horror film, but holds some charms of its own. Slowly-paced, but with a good payoff climactic encounter with the monsters, the charms of the movie really rest on the shoulders of its characters, led by one of my favorite character actors, Clancy Brown. Just seeing him all duded up, on the back of a horse, cradling a firearm, makes the film worth seeing.
Nacho Vigalondo short films – the charismatic director of last year’s TIME CRIMES (due this fall from Magnet Releasing) returned this year with a package of short films, including his Oscar-nominated “7:35 in the Morning”. I can’t think of many other new filmmakers out there with the kind of comic sensitibilities Nacho has, plus he’s pretty adept at lo-fi sci-fi, as well. Hopefully these shorts will find their way into the TIME CRIMES DVD package, as they’re all worth a watch. Check out the Fantastic Fest link for the titles and scour YouTube, if you’re interested – some of them have been posted there.
ESTOMAGO – a light but funny Brazilian film about a guy from the country who comes into the city and begins working as a chef, as well as romancing a local hooker. Lots of food porn here, and a bit of a twist ending (that’s easy to see coming), it’s forgettable but entertaining.
NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD – one of the best films of the fest, a feature documentary on the heyday of Australian exploitation filmmaking, covering low-budget horror, giant animal movies, road rage films (like MAD MAX), sexploitation comedies, and more. Featuring interviews with just about everybody in the Aussie film industry (but where’s the Toecutter, Hugh Keays-Byrne?) and tons and tons of clips, it makes you want to run right out and find all the films it talks about. Which I’m doing right now.
And in connection with the NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD premiere, Fantastic Fest also had a mini-retrospective of some of the films covered in the documentary, including ROAD WARRIOR (presented outdoors in a parking lot), RAZORBACK and two I caught: the giant (pro-) crocodile movie DARK AGE and the action extravaganza THE MAN FROM HONG KONG, starring Jimmy Wang Yu, George Lazenby, and featuring cameos from Sammo Hung, plus Yuen Kwai, Yuen Biao and Lam Ching-ying in blink-or-miss-them cameos during a fight scene or two. It’s a super-entertaining film, and surprisingly the first narrative feature from its director, the prolific Brian Trenchard-Smith, who was on hand to discuss the film and the industry which produced it.
There were a couple of other retro titles presented at FF, as well: a newly-restored version of the fourth APES film, CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, which has been restored to its original pre-release, R-rated version, and is a stunner. FF also broke their budget in re-creating the “Percepto” seat buzzers William Castle originally created for screenings of his Vincent Price classic THE TINGLER. Fun, but the buzzers didn’t quite work.
Finally, three of the more anticipated titles of the fest.
ACOLYTES – Aussie director John Hewitt was in attendance at the fest, and seems like a really great guy. I wasn’t as thrilled by this KIDS meets a serial killer thriller, about a trio of youths in the suburbs who discover the identity of a serial killer in their midst, and then try to blackmail him into murdering a pesky bully for them. Things get bloody, and more than a little cliched, by the time it wraps up 90 minutes later. Stylishly directed, the script is the weak point here, never really pulling together the disparate elements of the story. In fact, I thought the Larry Clark-style youth relationships were handled a lot better than the thriller elements.
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN – the lead characters get even younger in this moody and wonderful Swedish horror film that hasn’t yet gotten a negative review that I’ve seen. A young boy in a wintery suburb meets the girl next door, who happens to be a vampire. I thought the film had a major Stephen King feel to it, in a good way, based on how it uses an ensemble cast to tell the story of a small town beset by supernatural events but rooted in the characters and everyday lives of its inhabitants. And like a lot of early King works, it doesn’t skimp on the horror elements, with multiple bloody deaths and much vampire lore incorporated into the plot. But towering above all that are the performances of the two young leads, who create not only believable characters but also an authentic-feeling relationship between them.
MARTYRS – again, I agree with Grady. This is one sick puppy of a movie, but oh so good. I think I switched allegiances three times in the film, initially appreciating it, then growing sick of it, and then realizing I loved it toward the end. It’s going to play with your emotions, possibly make you sick – or angry, and might even upset you so much that you wind up hating it, but it’ll definitely provoke some kind of strong reaction in everybody who sees it, which is more than you can say for most films these days. It’s a slasher movie where the victim is your soul. —MW
Sep 30 2008