Fantastic Fest Day #7

Shrew's Nest Q&A - Esteban Roel

Esteban Roel, director of Shrew’s Nest

On the penultimate day of Fantastic Fest, I thankfully hit my second wind. I was still exhausted, but I’d gone past the zombie state into a sort of zen master peace.

It is by movies alone that I set my mind in motion.

One of my film slots yesterday was taken up by the animated shorts program, so I only got to see four features. It was still a solid day, though.

Shrew’s Nest is an incredible Whatever Happened to Baby Jane-style thriller from Spain. The plot centers around two sisters, the elder of whom has severe agoraphobia and thus cannot leave their apartment. As the film slowly reveals the damaged background of the two women, a handsome male neighbor falls down the stairs, and the eldest sister takes him in… and makes sure he cannot leave. The film is completely character driven, and it is grounded by a masterful performance by Macarena Gomez. Great stuff.

Open Windows is the new film by Nacho Vigalondo, the man who brought the world Timecrimes. Open Windows is the story of a regular-guy movie blogger who becomes wrapped up in a complicated scheme that somehow involves the actress that he blogs about. The narrative conceit of the film is that it takes place entirely on one computer screen, and the plot plays out across different windows on the screen. The film feels artificial and stilted until you relax into the style of storytelling, then it becomes a solid little thriller. And by the end, you learn that the things that were off-putting at first were actually necessary and intentional. Open Windows is, from beginning to end, ambitious and clever.

(Incidentally, I was an extra for Open Windows when it shot in Austin about two years ago. The back of my head and my camera are visible in the scene filmed at the Alamo Drafthouse. Thanks to Elijah Wood’s presence in the film, my camera now officially has a Kevin Bacon Number of 2.)

Horns is the latest film from the director of High Tension, and thankfully I can say it’s a better film than High Tension. That’s not to say that it’s great, but it’s engaging and has an interesting premise. Daniel Radcliffe stars as a young man in a small logging town who stands accused of murdering his beloved girlfriend. As he struggles to clear his name, he suddenly wakes up one morning with horns on his head. It turns out that the horns somehow persuade people to tell him the absolute truth about what’s on their mind, so he goes on a mission to find the real murderer. The film is funnier than I expected it to be, though the tone is sometimes uneven. The movie is at its best when it revels in its strange premise.

It Follows is a bizarre, simple, and well-executed horror flick. A teen girl finds that, after having sex with a boy she likes, she finds she is being stalked by an entity that walks after her at all times. She learns that the boy gave the monster to her, and now she must pass it on to someone else (via sex), or else the monster will catch her and kill her. Yes, it’s an obvious allegory for STDs. Yes, it’s a clever premise that allows teenagers to sleep with a lot of other teenagers. Yes, it’s a bit overwrought. However, the film is smarter than expected, the performances are good, and it’s well directed enough that an entity that simply walks at you becomes pretty scary. It Follows ultimately left me with a lot of nagging questions about plot holes and the logic of the creature (do condoms prevent the walking STD monster?), so it wasn’t completely satisfying, but it certainly held my attention throughout.

Now I get to head to the theater, where I will be treated (?) to the five-and-a-half hour director’s cut of Lars von Trier’s Nymph()maniac. If I don’t return, bury my ashes and salt the earth.

Fantastic Fest Day #6

Lost Soul Q&A

Middle: David Gregory, director of Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau. Right: Richard Stanley, director of Hardware and Dust Devil.

I was so exhausted yesterday that by the time I drove to the theater, I realized I just couldn’t handle another movie. So I skipped the first film and slept in my car for two hours. When I woke up, I checked Twitter and saw the buzz on the film and realized I’d made the right choice.

The films I did see yesterday were half old and half new. Thanks to the festival’s premier of Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, the festival had also gotten hold of some 35mm prints of some of the craziest examples of Cannon’s oeuvre. So, I happily spent the first half of my day watching those.

Cannon’s insane Death Wish 3 screened from an absolutely pristine 35mm print, which was struck a few years ago by MGM. That means I may have seen a better copy of the film than most audiences who have ever seen it. That’s a bit strange, because Death Wish 3 can only be described as “it’s not good, but it’s awesome.” It’s one of the pinnacle achievements of ludicrous 1980s violence, where Charles Bronson walks around with a hand cannon, blowing away thousands of anonymous thugs. Also, the movie seems to have something against ice cream. And there’s a bad guy with a reverse mohawk, which makes me wonder if the filmmakers had ever seen a real street thug or if they were just making shit up as they went along. Did I mention that the apartment building filled with gentle, elderly neighbors also happens to harbor two Browning M1919 machine guns? Yup.

This screening could only be followed up by Cannon’s equally insane Ninja III: The Domination, in which an aerobic’s instructor (!) is possessed (!!) by the soul of an evil ninja (!!!). The film’s script reads like a checklist of what the filmmakers thought was the cultural touchstones of 1984 American culture: legwarmers, Jazzercise, ninjas, lasers, V8 juice, and big hair (both on the lead actress’ head and on the lead actor’s back). Ninja III is exquisite in its inexplicability. Why does the lead character have a pay phone inside her apartment? Why is there a scene with a possessed arcade game? Oh, and did I mention that the V8 juice appears as a sex aid?

I then left the grand madness of the Cannon Films archive to watch something new: The Guest, the latest film from the writer and director who brought us You’re Next. The plot starts with an American soldier, who shows up on the doorstep of the family who lost their son to battle. He soon ingratiates himself into their lives, but something is… off. The film contains the lively characters, wry humor, and great tension seen in You’re Next, and adds a magnetic performance by Downton Abbey‘s Dan Stevens. Also, while the film doesn’t directly reference the 1980s, it has that same verve. It opens in limited release this week, so I recommend getting to a theater to catch it.

(After the film, I met Simon Barrett, who wrote the film. I told him how much I loved You’re Next and how much I liked how he wrote female characters. We got into a great conversation about the dearth of good female characters in genre films, and about how it’s slowly getting better. He said he wrote You’re Next after seeing a string of films at Fantastic Fest 2010 where women were all treated horribly.)

I capped the night with a New Zealand film called Housebound, and it immediately became one of my favorites of this whole festival. Great horror-comedy is hard to come by, and this one hits the sweet spot. The plot revolves around a young female hoodlum, who is confined by an ankle bracelet to her overbearing mother’s giant rural house. The mother believes the house has been haunted since before she moved in 20 years prior; the daughter doesn’t quite buy that, but can’t explain the house’s weird noises. The neighborhood parole officer happens to be into paranormal investigation… and the story goes from there. The film goes to places you don’t expect, the characters are vivid, and the script has a lot of pop to it. The film is a hoot, and I look forward to showing it to friends back home.

Fantastic Fest Day #5

Fantastic Feud

I don’t really know what day it is anymore. The concept of time is foggy. My body shuffles forward, as if pulled by an external force. My eyes scan constantly, seeking any movie screen within their view, like junkies seeking their next fix.

Three more days to go!

Anyway, I spent much of yesterday in front of things that weren’t feature films. I sat through the festival’s slate of horror shorts, and then witnessed the barely-controlled juggernaut of chaos that is a live game show named Fantastic Feud. As a result, I got five hours of sleep instead of the usual Fantastic Fest Four.

…it wasn’t enough.

Anyway, I did see some good feature-length stuff yesterday!

Force Majeure is the story of a Swedish family, who travel to the French Alps for a ski vacation. While dining at an outdoor restaurant, an avalanche skids down the mountain and hits the building. When the snow-fog clears and it is evident that no damage happened, the mother learns that the father ran for his life, abandoning her and the kids. This causes the rest of the vacation to be very uncomfortable for all involved. Force Majeure is a quiet, dryly humorous examination of masculinity and family, and definitely worth a look.

The Babadook is a striking horror movie, wrapped around the story of a single mother and her difficult seven-year-old son. The child becomes convinced that a boogeyman is lurking in their home, to the point where his constant obsession and weapons-crafting gets him thrown out of school and his mother out of her tiny social circle. Eventually, it’s just the two of them in their house together, and the seams of their existence start to unravel. Is the boy a monster, is the mother a monster, or is there a third monster-monster? The movie is excellent right up to the ending, which seems to be the correct ending for the story buried underneath an incorrect tone. It’s too bad, because the entire film is an intense fictional examination of the experience of living with mental illness, coupled with astonishing performances from the two leads.

The third and final film I saw yesterday was Free Fall, a Hungarian film that is more of a string of surreal vignettes than a straight narrative. The film starts out with an elderly woman leaping off the top of her seven-story apartment building, only to unceremoniously strike the pavement below. (Don’t worry, she’s fine. She does this every night.) The film then proceeds to tell the story happening within the apartments she passed on the way down. This includes things like a dinner party with the occasional nude person, a yoga class for what seems to be X-Men, a lot of Saran Wrap, a kid with a cow problem… well, it’s hard to explain. Whatever is going on here, it’s beautifully filmed, often funny, and never boring. The film also yielded the single most Fantastic Fest-y scene I’ve witnessed yet this year. When it happened, I could not stop giggling at the audience reaction. It was glorious.

Fantastic Fest Day #4

Danger 5 Q&A

Sean James Murphy and David Ashby from Danger 5, taking a break from killing Hitler.

The sleep deprivation is starting to get to me. I hallucinated that Marko Zaror gave me an energy drink. And then he spin-kicked a can off Brian Salisbury’s head. And then I got into a conversation with his mother.

Oh, wait, there are photos of the spin-kick on my camera.

So, I guess yesterday really happened! Here are some reviews of what I apparently actually saw…

Confetti of the Mind is a delightful collection of Nacho Vigalondo’s short films, starting with the one that garnered an Oscar nomination. He’s a delightfully clever filmmaker, and the short format suits him well. The shorts are interspersed with short interviews with Nacho, who is full of funny stories and comments about each one.

Lost Soul is a documentary about the infamously troubled 1990s production of The Island of Dr. Moreau. (You know the one. The one where some poor CGI guy had to digitally remove Marlon Brando’s visible genitals from several scenes. Yeah, that one.) The filmmakers managed to get interviews with an astounding number of cast and crew members, given that many of them were originally under a gag order from the studios. The oral history of this disastrous movie shoot is extraordinary, sad, and often hilarious. Fascinating stuff.

I then got an opportunity to see the first half of the second season of Danger 5, which somehow has more dinosaurs, lasers, and Hitler than the previous season. Oh, and this season is set in the 1980s, so big hair, shoulder pads, and cocaine jokes run rampant. It’s hilarious, but at the end of three straight episodes, my brain felt a little broiled. It was super thrilling, though, that most of the cast and the director were all in attendance. I even got to talk special effects with David Russo, the director and the voice of Colonel Chestbridge. He told me to kill Hitler, and that pretty much made my day.

Tokyo Tribe is the latest film from Sion Sono, who is a filmmaker I dearly love. Tokyo Tribe is pure madness. It’s a Japanese gangland film that is also a rap opera. Yes. It’s a rap musical. And it’s a parody of rap culture in Japan. And it becomes increasingly insane as time goes on. I don’t love it as much as Sono’s previous film, Why Don’t You Play in Hell, but there are few films I love that much.

Redeemer is the new low-budget punchfest from Chilean director Ernesto Diaz Espinoza and his chiseled action-muse Marko Zaror. It’s a feast of lovingly-shot fight scenes, interspersed with a delightfully breezy villain performance by Noah Segan. Espinoza now lives in the space in my heart that was once inhabited by Robert Rodriguez.

Okay, now I need to put on pants and get to the theater. Maybe I can get Marko Zaror to kick a can off my head…

Fantastic Fest Day #3

I learned a valuable lesson yesterday. If you’re going to have a pie fight in an alley, don’t just bring a change of clothes. Do the pie fight after all the other stuff you want to do.

In the photo above, I’m the one with the pie tin on her head. Even though I washed my hair and extremities with hand soap in the Alamo Drafthouse bathroom, and even though I changed clothes, I smelled real interesting for the rest of the day.

It was still worth it, because, dammit, I’ve now been in a pie fight.

Why was I in a pie fight, you ask? Well…

The first film of the day was a 35mm print of Bugsy Malone, the bizarre 1976 gangster Paul Williams musical with an all-child cast. Not only does it star miniature versions of Scott Baio and Jodie Foster, it also contains guns that fire whipped cream at foes. The pie fight at the end is pretty epic, and there’s no better way to cap that than with a real proper pie fight.

I’m pretty sure there is still chocolate sauce in my ear.

Anyway, moving on…

The Astrologer was a helluva thing. Also from 1976, this film was pretty much unknown until the American Genre Film Archive dug it up from a collection purchased from, of all places, the Kinsey Institute. Only one 35mm print is known to exist, so AGFA transferred it to 2K, which is what we saw. So, in true Fantastic Fest fashion, we saw a gorgeous transfer of earnest, bizarre, egotistical, exquisitely inept outsider art. The audience adored it. The blood brothers I gained in that theater are now walking around the fest screaming things like, “ANGULAR URANUS!” and “You’re not an astrologer, you’re an asshole!” If I manage to bring this thing to B-Fest next year, I would be hailed as a conquering hero. It’s amazing.

That was followed up by In Order of Disappearance, the latest film from Hans Petter Moland. Moland is the guy who made one of my favorite crime films, A Somewhat Gentle Man, so to say I was excited to see this new offering is an understatement. In Order of Disappearance, I am excited to say, is at least as good as Moland’s previous film. The film stars Stellan Skarsgard as a snow plow driver in rural Norway. When his son is murdered by a drug cartel, he starts picking off thugs one-by-one, climbing his way up to the boss. The film bears a lot of resemblance to A Somewhat Gentle Man in that the plot feels fresh, the characters — even the small roles — are vibrant, and the whole thing is shot through with a streak of delicious black comedy. LOVED IT.

After that, I went in to see Spring without knowing anything about it, and I am pleased to report that I found it to be thoroughly engaging. In general, I find romance films to be tedious, but this one centers on two nicely-written characters, and one of them is secretly a monster, so that’s cool. Bravo to the filmmakers for creating a completely new mythology for this thing; it’s so refreshing to see a monster movie that isn’t based around vampires or zombies. Also, bravo to the film’s two leads, who have extraordinary chemistry together. Good stuff.

I was so close to having a full run of top-notch films yesterday, that I’m truly disappointed that I didn’t care for Local God. It could be that I was just tired or simply not game for a serious boogeyman movie at that time, but Local God just turned me off. The premise is that an arty three-piece metal band goes into a cave to record a video, and instead find themselves individually stalked by — hallucinations? manifestations? — of their deepest fears. It sounds like a great premise, and the film contains occasionally impressive setpieces and narrative tricks, but ultimately, 80% of the movie is people walking through the dark with flashlights while things occasionally jump out at them. The movie plays like ambient music; it just repeats until it just becomes a dull buzz. That said, the guy next to me felt it was the most effective horror film he’d seen in ages, so your mileage may vary.

Okay, it sounds like my laundry is done. It’s time for me to take my pie-free clothes and self back to the theater. Ta!