Fantastic Fest 2016: Day Seven

Today: Heading into the home-stretch with plenty of social commentary and babysitters, plus jungle-horror cheapie and an autopsy.

Jungle Trap (U.S.: James Bryan, 1990/2016)

The kids at Bleeding Skull uncovered the existence of this cheapie during an interview with exploitation auteur Jim Bryan, who’d shot the footage but became so disillusioned with the direct-to-home-video biz that he never bothered finishing the film. With Bryan’s permission, Bleeding Skull had the footage edited and scored and now brings it to the world.

Chiefly set in the jungles of South America, the shot-on-video Jungle Trap was actually produced in Burbank…and looks it. Not only the most forgiving fan could claim that the film is written badly, acted badly, and filmed badly. Yet Jungle Trap also sporadically exhibits an eerie fever-dream atmosphere, largely derived from its warts-and-all presentation; Bleeding Skull mastered the film from twenty-five-year-old videotape, and didn’t bother to clean up the picture or correct static and dropouts. It may have an extremely narrow target audience, but that audience should celebrate it as a treasure.

The Playground (Poland: Bartosz M. Kowalski, 2016)

A bold and provocative social study that has generated adulation and outrage in equal measure, The Playground applies a distinctly European view of class interaction to a story of two preteens whose unpleasant behavior gradually escalates into something truly horrific. I don’t think it’ll play well to American audiences; the gulf between our view of social class and the filmmakers’ is too wide; certainly there’s a lot I either don’t get or don’t agree with.

In its defense, Bartosz Kowalski’s direction provides a creeping sense of foreboding and menace which culminates in a powerful and devastating conclusion: certainly the most intense emotional reactions I’ve experienced to a film this festival. That’s exactly what I look for in a film like The Playground, even if the commentary didn’t entirely work for me.

Short film: Burlap (U.S.: Justin Denton, 2016)

A typical stalking-the-babysitter horror tale with a weird twist. I guess this is supposed to be tied in to one of the VR “experiences” and I expect I would have understood it (and enjoyed it) more had I done those.

Safe Neighborhood (Australia: Chris Peckover, 2016)

Made in Australia by American filmmakers, Safe Neighborhood starts off as a by-rote stalking-the-babysitter/home-invasion horror/thriller, but takes a brilliant left turn at the end of the first act that turns it into something quite different: a wicked satire of a horror-comedy with sharp and unflinching social commentary. While Patrick Warburton steals his early scenes, it’s Olivia DeJonge (The Visit) who holds the film together in the long game as the film’s plucky heroine. One of the highlights of the festival.

Short film: Help Me First (U.S.: Mike Gasaway, 2016)

Quickie about ghost-hunters who find more than they bargained for. Didn’t do much for me.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe (U.K.: André Øvredal, 2016)

The latest from Troll Hunters director André Øvredal sets itself up as a procedural thriller told through the narrative device of the title character. Sadly, it ditches this novel premise about halfway through in favor of a less-interesting story path littered with “cat scares” (one of which involves an actual cat) and incoherent supernatural elements. Øvredal provides competent direction, and the acting team of Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch put in fine performances as father-and-son medical examiners, but overall Jane Doe adds up to less than the sum of its parts.

Top Ten Movies of the Festival

As of the end of day seven:

  1. Buster’s Mal Heart (Day 5)
  2. Belief: The Possession of Janet Moses (Day 3)
  3. Call of Heroes (Day 6)
  4. Arrival (Day 1)
  5. Safe Neighborhood (Day 7)
  6. Toni Erdmann (Day 2)
  7. A Dark Song (Day 5)
  8. Playground (Day 7)
  9. Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl (Day 6)
  10. S Is for Stanley (Day 6)

Fantastic Fest 2016: Day Six

Today! A movie about movie poster art, Stanley Kubrick’s chauffeur, a throwback haunting, and wuxia!

24×36: A Movie About Movie Posters (Canada: Kevin Burke, 2016)

The title is slightly misleading; 24×36 is specifically about…artistic movie posters, I guess; illustrations rather than the photo-montages that have been standard-issue for the last couple of decades (although there is some brief discussion of those). The first third of the documentary, which covers the history of the poster within the greater context of film advertising, is absolutely essential (assuming you’re a complete dork like me who finds things like lithography fascinating).

From there the film moves toward the modern poster illustrators and design studios, with some sidelines into the mechanics of the screen-printing process, the ins and outs of IP licensing, the business of the collectible “secondary market,” and such. I found this a bit less interesting, particularly the more self-c0ngratulatory coverage of the Mondo studio. Still, I did learn some stuff and the film overall was a lot of fun.

Short film: The Eternal (U.S.: Daniel Stuyck, 2016)

Supernatural thriller about a woman who finds a taped message from her dead love. Mournful (been getting that a lot this festival), stark, and beautiful. Also, lead actress Grace Marlow equals extremely cute.

Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl (U.S.: A.D. Calvo, 2016)

My favorite “throwback” films–House of the Devil, The Signal, The Duke of Burgundy–are the ones that copy the style but not the content of the ’70s and ’80s movies they pay homage to. Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl is like that, with a story that feels like a mix between Hill House and a fairy-tale. Erin Wilhelmi plays the title character (or who I assume is the title character), a young woman tasked with taking care of her shut-in aunt but finds herself torn between her duties and her infatuation with local bad-girl Quinn Shephard. It isn’t always coherent, but it has a gorgeous waking-nightmare atmosphere that I absolutely love.

S is for Stanley (Italy: Alex Infascelli, 2016)

Emilio D’Alessandro’s first job for Stanley Kubrick was driving a gigantic dong across London in a taxi during a snowstorm. (It’s the sculpture Malcolm McDowell uses to violate Miriam Karlin in A Clockwork Orange.) From there, D’Alessandro was hired to be Kubrick’s chauffeur, but over the years his duties developed so he became a sort of unofficial P.A.; he worked for the director during the production of Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket before retiring to Italy only to return to Kubrick’s employ in time for Eyes Wide Shut.

The portrait D’Alessandro paints of his boss is that of a perfectionist and a control freak. Surprise surprise, that’s not something we didn’t already know. What S Is for Stanley shows us is how the personality traits we associate with Kubrick manifested in his personal relationships, largely divorced from Kubrick’s reputation as a “genius”; D’Alessandro didn’t even see any of Kubrick’s films until his first, brief retirement. We already know what Kubrick was like as an artist; S shows us what he was like as a person.

Call of Heroes (Hong Kong: Benny Chan, 2016)

I don’t think I’ve seen a better action film this year than Benny Chan’s wuxia Call of Heroes. Set in the fractured China of the early 20th century, Chan delivers a potent martial-arts epic with a heavy dose of western stylization. The fight sequences, choreographed by the legendary Sammo Hung, are exhilarating; the location work is gorgeous; the performances (particularly Louis Koo as the villain and Eddie Peng as the more roguish of the film’s two heroes) are incredible. Even the story has more thematic depth than some Star Wars movie. This is a film that is truly all things to all people.

Top Five Movies of the Festival

As of the end of day six:

  1. Buster’s Mal Heart (Day 5)
  2. Belief: The Possession of Janet Moses (Day 3)
  3. Call of Heroes (Day 6)
  4. Arrival (Day 1)
  5. Toni Erdmann (Day 2)

Fantastic Fest 2016: Day Five

Today: Martial arts, fashion, black magick, Rami Malek, and the Secret Screening!

Re:Born (Japan: Yugi Shimomura, 2016)

I’m not generally a fan of martial arts films, but I figured what the hell, there’s no point in going to a film festival if I’m not going to stretch outside my usual boundaries. Also, I skipped The Assassin last year, and rued the decision a few months later when I watched the screener.

Unfortunately Re:Born just did not wow me. The martial arts sequences are indeed impressive; they’re like watching an intricate ballet of violence. However the plot felt little more than perfunctory and hollow, with little in the way of an emotional core. The protagonist’s effective invincibility alienated me as well.

Oh well, I guess I’m really not the target market for this sort of thing.

Fashionista (U.S.: Simon Rumley, 2016)

This is an interesting psychological thriller (sorta) about a woman who owns a secondhand-clothing store who gets involved with some bad, bad people, and mayhem ensues. Writer/director Simon Rumley says a lot about womens’ image and self-image (or at least I think he does) without ever being ham-handed or preachy, and he earns every twist and turn of the plot. Lead actress Amanda Fuller kills in a courageous, vulnerable performance; Ethan Embry and Eric Balfour also turn in fine performances. Plus an awesome soundtrack.

Buster’s Mal Heart (U.S: Sarah Edina Smith, 2016)

I wasn’t initially interested in Buster’s Mal Heart, but once I realized Rami Malek was in it, I decided to give it a chance; Mr. Robot is one of my new favorite shows. Golly, am I ever glad I did: Buster is my new favorite fiction film of the festival so far. Sarah Edina Smith (The Midnight Swim) puts Malek in the “dual” role of a mentally-ill mountain man roaming the wilds of Montana and a young father who falls prey to a wandering prophet of doom (DJ Qualls).

Malek seems to have come out of nowhere and is winning all the awards thanks to his performances on Mr. Robot and he does not disappoint here, but Qualls and Kate Lyn Shiel also impress. Smith delivers a twisty, turny, borderline-SF plot and pairs it up with lyrical, heartbreaking imagery and a creepy retro pulsing-synth score of the kind throwback horror movies have been turning into a cliché. It’s a lot to take on but it all works, and I don’t expect to see a better film this festival. (If I do, though, I’ll be pleasantly surprised.)

Secret Screening: Split (U.S.: M. Night Shyamalan, 2017)

About five minutes before the secret screening began a rumor circulated that M. Night Shyamalan had been spotted on-site. When the Blumhouse Production ident ran during the bumpers that all but confirmed it. Hope you weren’t holding out for Free Five or John Wick 2.

This tale of three girls (The Witch‘s Anya Taylor Joy in the lead) kidnapped by a man with multiple personalities (James McAvoy) isn’t as bad as I had expected it would be; I parted ways with MNS after The Village. It’s actually pretty good. Mind you, I’m none too happy about one of the film’s central conceits, which basically fetishizes mental illness. But the plot works, more or less, even if it’s not too hard to figure out what’s really going on.

The real reason to watch, however, comes with the performances: McAvoy in particular, who knows exactly when to go over the top and when not to (and how far to go). As thrillers go, you could do worse. Shyamalan certainly has, ha ha ha.

Short film: Givertaker (Paul Gandersman, 2016)

Teenage girl decides she’s Willow Rosenberg and decides to slap some black magick on her high-school rivals. Not really my thing, but made well enough, I guess.

A Dark Song (Ireland: Liam Gavin, 2016)

This dark little gem about a self-destructive occultist (Sightseers‘ Steve Oram, in a bravura performance) and the woman who hires him to perform a black-magick ritual (Catherine Walker, no slouch herself) isn’t really a horror movie, although it does occasionally speak the language, and it goes into some very, very dark places. The film writer/director Liam Gavin gives us is more mournful and sad than scary, a meditation on love and loss that rings true in the deepest chambers of the heart. Damn near perfect, and another one of my festival faves.

Top Five Movies of the Festival

As of the end of day five:

  1. Buster’s Mal Heart
  2. Belief: The Possession of Janet Moses
  3. Arrival
  4. Toni Erdmann
  5. A Dark Song

Fantastic Fest 2016: Day Four

Salt and Fire (Mexico: Werner Herzog, 2016)

Herzog’s latest fiction film tells the tale of U.N. scientists kidnapped by mysterious abductors while en route to survey an ecological disaster in South America. Visually, the film is pure poetry, but I don’t think anyone expects anything less from Herzog. As far as the plot goes, it’s a bit ham-handed, and filled with awkward dialog. I’m not familiar with Herzog’s recent fictional work (the last such film I saw by him was his sublime remake of Nosferatu), so I don’t know if these are common flaws. Luckily, the main cast (Veronica Ferres as the lead scientist, Michael Shannon as the leader of the abductors, and Lawrence Krauss as an eccentric cabinet minister) manage to transcend it. And it’s not entirely without humor, especially at the end.

Raw (France: Julia Ducournau, 2016)

Is it just me, or has the “New French Extremity” been hibernating for the last few years? If Julia Ducournau’s Raw led to a bit of a revival, I wouldn’t mind. Garlance Marillier and Ella Rumpf put in terrific performances as sisters attending a veterinary school with exceedingly odd initiation rituals which awaken bizarre proclivities in newbie Marillier. (Also keep an eye out for Calvaire‘s Laurent Lucas.) The hazing goes a bit over the top, but we’re not talking about a subset of horror known for its subtlety, so that’s okay. The film’s grossness has been overstated somewhat, except for one scene involving a cow, and to be honest I’d rather watch an hour and a half than We Are the Flesh.

Phantasm: Ravager (U.S.: David Hartman, 2016)

Phantasm franchise newcomer David Hartman has expressed a desire to move the latest installment away from the action-horror of the third and fourth films and back to the series’ roots in surreal imagery. Sadly it’s not really possible to recreate the first film’s cough-syrup-induced nightmare vibe with digital effects and modern aesthetics, which leaves Reggie Bannister (with the occasional help of Mike Baldwin, the late Angus Scrimm, and a couple of series noobs) acting across a CGI landscape that manages to be less convincing than the 1979 version.

With the visuals not up to snuff, the focus then turns to the standard flaws. Likable though he is, Bannister simply isn’t a natural lead actor, and the film spends too much time keeping him separated from Baldwin. None of the ensemble can navigate the awful dialog. Worst of all, the finished product was cobbled together from at least two or three short films Hartman and series patriarch Don Coscarelli made over the years, and it shows, particularly in its hash of an anticlimax that entirely fails to commit to any resolution.

The upside is that the cast and crew put a lot of passion into the project, which is certainly fun to watch even if it isn’t very good. These are Scrimm’s final scenes as the Tall Man; with Bill Thornbury and Kathy Lester also on board, Phantasm: Ravager represents the last reunion of the 1979 cast. I could think of a lot of worse reasons to make a movie.

Top Five Movies of the Festival

As of the end of day four:

  1. Belief: The Possession of Janet Moses
  2. Arrival
  3. Toni Erdmann
  4. The Eyes of My Mother
  5. Raw

Fantastic Fest 2016: Day Three

Today: a documentary about an exorcism in New Zealand; an audacious black-and-white psych-thriller, a short film program, and whatever the hell We Are the Flesh thinks it’s supposed to be.

Belief: The Possession of Janet Moses (New Zealand: David Stubbs, 2015)

Belief caught my eye in the Fantastic Fest program because of its superficial resemblance to the Anneliese Michel case (which inspired at least three films and a Public Image Limited song). Like Michel, Janet Moses was a troubled young woman who began exhibiting disturbing and antisocial behavior, which in retrospect seem to be obvious symptoms of mental illness, but which were interpreted by her family as indicative of possession. Both women died during attempts to exorcise them. In fact, they were even similar in age at the time of their deaths (Moses was 22, Michel 23).

However, what I didn’t expect (as the Fantastic Fest program didn’t mention this) was the Maori ethnicity and spirituality of Moses and her mother’s family, and Belief director David Stubbs goes out of his way to sensitively approach the role religion played in her death. Stubbs is clearly more interested in examining the question “How could this happen?” and the effect of the tragedy on the family (who clearly remain devastated).

The key to the film’s success are its dramatic recreations of the events leading up to Moses’s death. Such re-enactments are often the cheesiest part of any documentary featuring them but Stubbs takes them and nails them to the wall, filling them with palpable tension. Not only are they more than a little scary, they’re easily the most terrifying seen I’ve seen yet at this year’s fest. So far, this is my favorite film of the festival.

Short film program: Short Fuse

The first short film program I attended this year was the Short Fuse program. I’m not sure what the difference is between the three programs (the other two are called Fantastic Shorts and Shorts with Legs), but it was a strong slate, giving me something to hope for for the other two.

Dawn of the Deaf (U.K.: Rob Savage, 2016)

Titles punning on Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead are common enough to be passé, so I was pleased to find that Dawn of the Deaf wasn’t a parody, half-assed, or both. I really liked the film’s central conceit, in which the zombie plague afflicts everyone except the hearing-impaired

Sadly, it does commit what I consider to be the Cardinal Sin of Short Films, which is that it doesn’t tell anything remotely resembling a complete story. If Dawn of the Deaf were a feature, everything we see here would be the pre-credits sequence. I hate when shorts do that.

Curve (Australia: Tim Egan, 2016)

Some of my favorite horror shorts are just little slices of weirdness with no explanation. Curve, my favorite of the Short Fuse program, is a great example of this. Director Tim Egan puts a young woman on a brief diagonal stretch of concrete between two sheer drops, with no indication of how she got there, vague hints of what lies below, and not even a chance in hell of making it out. I love shit like this.

The Stylist (U.S.: Jill Gevargizian, 2016)

Najarra Townsend (Contracted) plays a hairdresser with some bizarre proclivities. Well-constructed with some great effects sequences and a fine performance by Townsend.

They Will All Die in Space (Spain: Javier Chillon, 2015)

A science-fiction mystery with a delightful black-and-white B-movie vibe. My one complaint is that the title gives away a bit too much of the plot, but on the other hand, when you have a title as good as They Will All Die in Space you gotta use it for something.

I Want You Inside Me (U.S.: Alice Shindelar, 2016)

The only short on the program I didn’t like. Admittedly, Teen Sex Horror is one of my least favorite subgenres, so I don’t think there was ever any chance I was going to like it. That being said, it has a wonderful final scene. 

Death Metal (U.S.: Chris McInroy, 2016)

An uproarious horror-comedy concerning a cursed electric guitar, with great effects. Damn near perfect. Keep an ear out for the Gremlins reference in the dialog.

Overtime (Australia: Craig D. Foster, 2016)

Workplace comedy with added werewolf for flavor. The payoff is awesome, but the film takes a little too much time getting to it.

90 Degrees North (Germany: Detsky Graffam, 2015)

Another one of my favorites, with an appropriately fucked-up premise (an evil traffic intersection!), perfectly paced with an ingenious resolution. Never gonna trust traffic intersections after seeing this one, I’ll tell you that.

When Sussurrus Stirs (U.S.: Anthony Cousins, 2016)

An adaptation of bizarro author Jeremy Robert Johnson’s awesome short story of the same name (it’s in his collection We Live Inside You). Director Anthony Cousins puts a Frank Hennenlotter twist on the visuals (including one shot which seems to be a direct reference to Brain Damage). Most of the entries on this program had standout effects, but this one probably had the best of the lot.

Short Fuse ranking

  1. Curve
  2. Death Metal
  3. 90 Degrees North
  4. They Will All Die in Space
  5. The Stylist
  6. When Sussurrus Stirs
  7. Overtime
  8. Dawn of the Deaf
  9. I Want You Inside Me

The Eyes of My Mother (U.S.: Nick Pesce, 2016)

First-time director Nick Pesce gets a bravura performance out of lead actress Kika Magalhaes in this tale of a young woman with unconventional attitudes towards family and a twisted relationship with her mother’s murderer. With its intense, intimate focus, female-led story, and excellent black-and-white cinematography, this one has a vibe similar to last year’s Darling (only with 100% less Larry Fessenden). Ariel Loh’s score, consisting primarily of slabs of stomach-churning ambient drone, underlines the intensity. Unforgettably brutal, but also unsettlingly beautiful.

We Are the Flesh (Mexico: Emiliano Rocha Minter, 2016)

Emiliano Rocha Minter superimposes Christ imagery upon this tale of a creepy guy and his two attractive vacant-souled minions as they build a big cardboard womb underneath Mexico City and proceed to fuck each other senseless inside it. 

It’s hard to work out exactly what Rocha Minter means for the audience to take away from this film, and even harder to care. The sound design and score unsettle and startle, but they don’t keep the non-stop parade of explicit sex scenes from being dull at best and infuriating at worst. Like I said a couple of days ago, I’m not a prude but I’d like sex scenes in films to actually mean something. Here, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Rocha Minter was indulging in his fetishes on the audience’s dime. I have my fetishes as well. I just don’t expect other people to pay me to indulge in them.

In short: I don’t think I’ve seen a film so maddeningly pointless and awful since Enter the Void. So fuck this film. No, scratch that. I’ll take a page from Lenny Bruce here, and un-fuck this film. This film does not deserve to get laid.

Fantastic Fest 2016: Day Two

Day two! A French animated feature co-produced by Studio Ghibli; a DIY SF cartoon epic; a quirky German “comedy,” and the latest from Ana Lily Amirpour.

Short film: Limbo (U.S.A: Will Blank, 2016)

This ruefully funny short strands a young man in the desert with no cell phone, a craving for burritos, and a dying dog who grants a wish. It’s a lot deeper and poignant than I’ve indicated here, with exactly the right ratio of quirk to non-quirk.

The Red Turtle (France: Michaël Dudok de Wit, 2016)

This much-anticipated collaboration between Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit and the Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli (Miyazaki’s home base, not that you didn’t already know that) concerns a man stranded on a deserted island with a giant red turtle who consistently blocks his attempts to escape. Things take a most unexpected turn from there.

The film’s meandering, largely plotless story makes it feel longer than its comparatively meager 80-minute run-time, at least to me; remember, I’m generally a plot guy. Dudok de Wit makes up for it with an enchanting art style heavily influenced by the linge claire of Tintin creator Hergé. It’s a delight to look at, even if I didn’t find it to be as powerful as it was clearly intended.

Also, whenever anybody tries to tell you this film contains no dialogue, call bullshit on them. The word “Hey!” is distinctly uttered four times. I counted.

Nova Seed (Canada: Nick DiLiberto, 2016)

Much has been made of Nova Seed‘s DIY creation; writer/director/animator Nick DiLiberto spent years animating every frame by hand. Appropriately, a distinctly personal vibe permeates the film, a quirky, pulpy space opera about a lion-man who seeks to defeat the mad scientist Dr. Mindskull (probably the greatest character name ever).

I started to nod off after a while during the screening–not because of the film, but because I hadn’t gotten good sleep the night before and was still pretty tired. So I think there’s a lot I didn’t get about the project’s dense backstory and world-building, and I often felt lost trying to suss out exactly why the characters were doing what they were doing. But I’m sufficiently intrigued to consider a second viewing; I don’t think there’s anything else I really want to see in Nova Seed‘s repeat slot.

Toni Erdmann (Germany: Maren Ade, 2016)

Maren Ade’s two-and-a-half-hour-plus epic about a German executive living and working in Bucharest, whose relationship with her difficult and eccentric father is strained even before he starts showing up at her business functions wearing an awful black wig and alternately claiming to be a business coach and a German ambassador, has been classified as a comedy, a claim that doesn’t feel entirely accurate.

To be sure, there’s much about Toni Erdmann that’s uproariously funny, most notably a scene involving an apartment full of nudes, save for a someone dressed as the Bulgarian pagan figure babugeri. And you’ll never hear the song “The Greatest Love of All” the same way again after this film.

But between the pointed corporate satire and quirky human comedy lurks a distinctly humanistic bittersweetess and unexpected depth. The film’s almost tragicomic tone left me expecting either of the lead characters–expertly portrayed by Sandra Füller (Requiem) and Peter Simonischek–to die towards the film’s climax. If nothing else, any film whose closing-credits theme is one of the dirgier Cure songs (“Plainsong,” the opening salvo from Disintegration) can be considered a laff riot.

The one flaw is that it does go on too long, but there’s nothing I really feel I’d cut. (Well, maybe the guy masturbating onto a pastry.) Such is art.

The Bad Batch (U.S.A: Ana Lily Amirpour, 2016)

The genius of Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was its cross-pollenization of very different modes, with its Islamic/Arabic aesthetic as its nucleus, a combination so obvious in hindsight that my friend Amanda opined that it was hard to believe that “vampires in hijabs” had not been done before.

The Bad Batch, a dystopia which situates Sookie Waterhouse between a beefy cannibal loner (Jason Momoa) and a creepy white-suited cult leader (Keanu Reeves) who leads a settlement that is basically one huge rave, doesn’t feel as distinctly original as A Girl Walks Home. The setting seems straight out of Mad Max: Fury Road, only without cars and chases (Reeves’s harem of Frankie Say-shirted pregnant broodmares underlines the comparison), with major aesthetic elements seemingly coming from Rodriguez (Waterhouse’s wardrobe seems to consist entirely of ironically flirty shorts) and Tarantino (Amirpour uses Ace of Base’s “All that She Wants” the same way QT used “Stuck in the Middle with You” in Reservoir Dogs).

That lack of distinctiveness–not to mention some seriously bizarre plot choices (which I can’t really discuss without spoilers) and the positioning of Momoa as romantic lead and sex symbol (I just don’t get that)–meant that Bad Batch didn’t impress me as much as I’d hoped it would. But at least there’s someone out there making movies like this, so bless Amirpour for that.

Fantastic Fest 2016: Day One

The first day! A science-fiction offering from the director of Sicario and Enemy; a historical drama from the director of Oldboy; and a straight-up gorefest from the Astron 6 gang.


Arrival (U.S.A.: Denis Villeneueve, 2016)

In the latest effort from director Denis Villenueve (Prisoners, Enemy, and Sicario), aliens come and it’s up to a dozen world governments who can barely stand each other at the best of times to figure out how to talk to them.

I recall something I wrote a long time ago about The Eye (the original Korean–I think–version): the story felt like the universe had engineered this exact sequence of events specifically to teach the protagonist a life lession. Arrival skates uncomfortably towards this at times, and how you feel about the film overall may very well ride on whether you accept the philosophical principles its third act relies upon.

For myself, I bought it because I felt that Villenueve, supported by screenwriter Eric Heisserer (adapting a novella by Ted Chiangmai), lead Amy Adams, and composer Johan Johansson, did an amazing job of conveying the sheer awesomeness of such an experience. To misquote John Allison, we’ve diluted the meaning of the word “awesome” by using it to describe how it feels when the toaster works perfectly, but this is the truest sense of the term: simultaneously delightful and britches-soilingly terrifying.

It may not be up to the “cerebral cinematic SF” standard set by Primer and Under the Skin, but what other movie is going to put the task of saving the world in the hands of a linguist?

The Handmaiden (South Korea: Chan-Wook Park, 2016)

Oldboy provocateur Chan-Wook Park has been getting a lot of praise for his new film, and I can understand why: it’s a sumptuous period piece set in Japan-occupied wartime Korea, about a young thief enlisted in a long con to steal a wealthy heiress’s money–only to find herself falling in love with her mark, with a twisty plot and suspense worthy of Hitchcock.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t have quite enough story to fill out its nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time, and it compensates by revisiting plot developments we’ve already seen and indulging in gratuitous explicit lesbian sex. While I’m not a prude, I also find I’m not particularly interested in the sex lives of people who aren’t me, especially when they’re fictional. Erotica/erotic thrillers/erotic horror doesn’t do a lot for me, I’m afraid.

So I didn’t like The Handmaiden as much as I probably should have. Oh well.

The Void (Canada: Jeremy Gillispie & Steven Kostanski, 2016)

Do you like throwback horror? The Void‘s writer/director team of Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski (probably best known as members of the Astron 6 posse) sure do, judging from The Void. They’ve stuffed it chock full of what I can only assume are deliberate references to Alien, Hellraiser, The Thing, and probably a lot more that I was too tired to notice, and they top it off with a pulsy-analog-synth score that’s been de rigeur since The Guest and will probably only become more ubiquitous thanks to the success of Stranger Things.

When The Void works, it really, really works, and that’s mostly when the filmmakers put the focus on the awesome design, creeping dread, Kenneth Welsh’s chilling vocal performance, and Bottin-worthy practical effects. But by the beginning of the second act, it becomes glaringly obvious that they haven’t bothered crafting much of a story, or for that matter, the characters to populate one.

That’s not as much of a problem as it might initially seem. Last year’s The Mind’s Eye, had similar strengths and weaknesses, but largely failed by putting too much emphasis on its idiot plot. Plus, I counted two explicit references to The Beyond here, and Fulci’s best films work by leveraging the weakness of their plots into strengths.

Gillespie and Kostanski aren’t quite that skilled, not yet. But at least they manage to give us two-thirds of a pretty good film, and I’m willing to cut them some slack for the film’s soggy middle.

Tomorrow: Dancing! Whisky! Ladies! Pleasure! (I’m sorry, I was doing a re-watch of Snuff Box before I left for Austin, and it’s irrevocably stuck in my head. I can’t be in love if it’s plastic…)