Red, White and Blue
One of the more divisive films at Fantastic Fest, Red, White and Blue elicited strong reactions all over the board. I heard “masterpiece” mumbled here and there, but I heard just as many people declare it a piece of poorly made garbage. For me, it’s not a film that falls to either extreme. It’s impossible to deny its handful of truly effective, disturbing moments, but it’s also impossible to ignore its sloppy direction and meandering storyline. If you must see Red, White and Blue (and I will not discourage you from seeing it in the least despite my middling opinion), attempt to go in as spoiler-free as possible. Seen blind, Red, White and Blue evolves before your eyes, from a moody but uplifting character piece about broken people finding solace in one another to, well, something else entirely. The final act of the film is punishing and brutal in way that’s entirely unexpected and the actor who emerges from the ensemble to become the central focus is one of those film characters I’m not going to forget anytime soon. However, the rest of the cast is hit-and-miss and until those shocking final twenty minutes, the film has no drive and no momentum, existing with no purpose, just twiddling its thumbs until it screams “Gotcha!” with its conclusion.
To call Stake Land ambitious would be an understatement. Shot digitally and on a small budget, the finished film looks like a real movie, which sounds like a backhanded compliment unless you’re familiar with just how crummy most low-budget horror films actually look. A road movie of the post-apocalyptic variety, Stake Land takes place in a world overtaken by vampires, where the only thing more dangerous than nocturnal bloodsuckers are the religious cults who think the vampires are God’s instrument in destroying his creation. The world building on display is exceptional and the sheer amount of attention to detail makes me wonder if Stake Land would have worked better as a series of novels than as a film. Alas, the film is undone by a screenplay that acts more as a series of events than a story and a lead “badass” who, despite his “badass” posturing and “badass” clothing and “badass” vampire killing equipment, simply is not a badass. For a world this interesting and lived-in, I wish they had found a better story and better protagonist to journey through it.
We Are What We Are
A man dies and as the family grieves, the mother and the eldest son fight for control of the family. In its early scenes, We Are What We Are plays like a sobering Mexican drama of the Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu variety, but soon enough, you realize why this thing played Fantastic Fest: this is a family of cannibals and with the patriarch gone, someone needs to step up and go out on the hunt. Writer/director Jorge Michel Grau never tries to make this family sympathetic or give us a reason to empathize with them. They’re not starving, they don’t have to eat other people. They do it for their unspecified religion, for a seemingly important ritual. This is a double-edged sword. We are allowed to watch a family of monsters at work, view their meticulous pre-meal preparation and their selection and stalking of said meal, but we are kept at arm’s length at all times, always aware that these people are fueled by nightmare juice. Even the police officers tracking the family down are unlikable douchebags, only interested in the fame that catching a family of cannibals will surely bring. The result is an extremely well-made, slow burn of a film that builds unbearable tension before unleashing it in a climax that is as exciting as it is disturbing. Part of me really wishes Grau had taken us in deeper and made us care about these people, forcing us into a morally gray area, but that’s not the film we’ve got here. But I’ll take it.
Primal is an intentional and unintentionally hilarious Australian horror film that tries to be Cabin Fever and The Evil Dead with cavemen and tentacle rape. This is a stupid, stupid film with a healthy side of silly and moronic, but I’m not going to deny I had a blast with it. The story is appropriately bare bones: college students go to jungle to see rare cave paintings, a few of them get infected with ancient virus that turns them into fanged caveman monsters and the survivors must escape before they get their throats torn out. Simple enough, really. Although not particularly well made, Primal is fun and fast, filled with enough interesting gore and monster moments to justify a group viewing (although booze will help). The various technical flaws are cushioned by a completely game cast, led by Krew Boylan, who spends most of the film growling, spitting and covered in blood. There are so many movie monsters that it takes something special to stand out, but there is a level of total commitment in Ms. Boylan’s performance that is a little shocking. There is no reason for Primal to have a flesh-eating cavewoman monster this convincing, but here she is.
Never Let Me Go
Although some have labeled it an odd choice for Fantastic Fest, Never Let Me Go fits the bill perfectly. A very smart, very sad film that uses science fiction to tell a compelling human story, Never Let Me Go is The Island if was a sobering look at human mortality and love and friendship. The very sexy Carey Mulligan, the very sexy Andrew Garfield and the very sexy Keira Knightley are clones, living in their own little society separated from the real world, waiting until the day they’ll be sliced open and their organs removed to extend the lives of “real people.” What could have been an action movie about escape and the triumph of love turns out to be a tragic look at the inevitability of death and the importance of finding love when we can, where we can. Garfield and Mulligan shine and director Mark Romanek proves that The IslandOne Hour Photo was no fluke. This is mature, thoughtful science fiction used in service of a story and emotions. How rare is that?