Fantastic Fest 2011: Part 1
Part 2

Howdy from Austin again!

You know, I’d initially thought that the geyser of beer rupturing through Fantastic Fest would be what killed me in Austin, but thus far my liver is doing just dandy. What I didn’t count on is Austin’s most sinister appetizer — queso dip with beef brisket mixed in. Jesus. I think one of my ventricles is completely full of that shit currently. If I don’t return to Los Angeles, tell my loved ones that I died doing what I love… eating queso dip with beef brisket mixed in.

Alright, let’s get down to biznatude.

Paranormal Activity 3
Genre: Horror
Director: Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost

The Gist: Continuing with the continuity of the franchise, we again follow ghost-plagued sisters Katie and Kristi as paranormal, uh, shall we say activity undoes a happy home life. Turns out they were pestered by mean demons even as youngsters — our found footage here having been shot by their step-dad back in the mid-1980’s. Let’s just say that one of the sisters has a very nasty imaginary friend that of course turns out to not be so imaginary.

Should You Be Excited: Sure, why not.

Thoughts: I never saw PA2, but fortunately I was sitting next to someone who had just read the film’s Wikipedia page and was able to give me the lowdown; the PA franchise has a surprisingly strict mythology for what a contrivance the first film was.

I’m not the biggest fan of found-footage movies. Admittedly it would be a little weird at this point if PA3 tried to move away from the found-footage thing (we all remember Blair Witch 2), but I nonetheless always have the same problems with this subgenre — namely the amount of pressure placed on my suspension of disbelief that anyone would keeping recording while something really dangerous is happening to them. But the PA schtick is a simple and clearly successful one, so it only makes sense to keep running with the ball. Though I don’t think they need to stick to the structural schtick so heavily, and by that I mean the slowburn format of switching to night shots in which our characters are sleeping and an ever increasing amount of poltergeisty shenanigans occur. The slowburn can get monotonous and in PA3 it also causes a lot of believability issues when it comes to the characters’ reactions to things. For example, the husband in the film gets very blatant video proof that there is a ghost in the house – footage that would make you shit your pants if you saw it in real-life – yet not only does he not freak out, he doesn’t even tell his wife because he doesn’t want to upset her. Even less believable is the older of the two sisters (I forget which is which). The ghost pulls this little girl off the ground by her hair, yet when the mother doesn’t believe her about the ghost, that night the little girl sleeps soundly and calmly in the very same room in which she was attacked. I’m pretty sure that kid would want to sleep with the parents that night — if she ever slept again.

But, all that said, there is a certain amount of leeway that the PA series commands. These are born theatrical films, as they are designed entirely around first-viewing jump scares. I can’t imagine any of these playing very well the second time around, when you know what’s coming and when, but PA3 sure got people on the edge of their seats and shrieking in the intended places during my show. Though the story is pretty dumb, it’s a good spooky time and Catfish‘s Schulman and Joost manage to sneak in some legitimately great bits and moments. Again, I never saw 2, but 3 has a wildly better climax than the first film.

Moment to Savor: A truly amazing slow-pan gimmick shot in the kitchen, in which the ghost plays a little game of now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t with the family’s appliances, furniture and kitchenware. This scene earned an uproarious round of applause from the audience. I also enjoyed a small bit in which two characters discuss the logic of Back to the Future‘s title.


Out of a Possible 5 Stars

Sleep Tight
Genre: Thriller, Dark Comedy
Director: Jaume Balagueró

FF Summary: Cesar (Malamadre from the kick-ass CELL 211) works as a doorman in a Barcelona residential complex (the director clearly has something of a fetish for the vertical shafts found in Barcelona apartment buildings). Observing his daily routine, you can see that Cesar is not a particularly happy man. Life is dull and repetitive and offers no real hope for him to break out of his daily grind. However, he does seem to have one daily highlight; a small ray of sunshine in the form of one resident Clara. He always has her morning newspaper ready, takes care of her small household maintenance and is met by her bright smile as she passes by at the beginning and end of each day. We gradually recognize a sinister side to Cesar. Perhaps his appreciation of Clara borders on unhealthy, dark obsession. As his behavior descends, other residents begin to suspect that something may not be quite right. Cesar must do whatever must be done to keep his plans intact.

Should You Be Excited: Yes.

Thoughts: Considering that Balagueró wrote and co-directed REC and REC 2, I had certain expectations entering this film — especially because, like the REC films, Sleep Tight takes place solely inside an apartment complex. But Sleep Tight isn’t a horror movie. It isn’t even really a thriller (its genre label at FF). It’s more of a quietly demented dark comedy that evolves into a devilishly tense dark-comedy-thriller towards the very end. The movie feels like a fucked up rendition of that section of Amelie where Amelie is messing with her jackass neighbor; changing his shoe sizes and such. I wasn’t that familiar with star Luis Tosar going into the film, but he is what makes the film skip along so entertainingly. Because Cesar is a truly despicable character, a pure sociopath with a soulless motive. Yet you relish his every terrible victory, big and small, rooting for him to somehow get away with it all. At least I did. Maybe I’m a horrible person.  

Moment to Savor: A brilliant scene of Hitchcockian nail-biting, when Cesar spills ether on his face while trying to make a silent, unnoticed escape — which of course makes doing so fairly impossible.


Out of a Possible 5 Stars

New Kids Turbo
Genre: Comedy
Director: Steffen Haars , Flip van der Kuil

FF Summary: Rikkert, Barrie, Richard, Robbie and Gerrie have fabulous mullets and manlier-than-manly moustaches. They do not, however, have jobs. All of this – hair, more hair, and unemployment – is largely because they are idiots. And not just idiots, but idiots in classic late ‘80s style, fueled by big hair, fast cars and loud music. Theirs would be unremarkable lives if not for a fateful decision made after being cut off of welfare. If the government won’t give them free money, they simply won’t pay for anything. Cue the most incompetent, small-minded crime spree ever concocted, and one that somehow lands the group status as national folk heroes. Clearly this cannot stand. The government must take action. Unfortunately, the government is even worse at governing than these criminals are at crime..

Should You Be Excited: Uh… maybe?

Thoughts: This film is sort of simultaneously awful and geniusly stupid. But it is definitely stupid. Very stupid. Extremely stupid. I mean, wow… is this movie fucking stupid. But shamelessly and tirelessly so. It took me a while to get into it and the film’s dedication to the words “homo” and “cunt,” but just as Billy Bob’s voice in Sling Blade eventually started to sound normal, so did the unending slurs. Two of my friends walked out during the first 30 minutes, though I will note that the film was done a huge disservice by starting late and the misguided decision by FF to precede the film with five episodes of a web series called Cop Hard, which was rather tedious and sapped our toleration for no-brow humor (I contemplated walking out myself, but in the end was pleased I stayed; mostly). New Kids Turbo is one of those films that won’t surprise you if someone thinks it is utter horeshit or loves it with a passion. I was able to appreciate it for its base excesses, but the gag did start to wear thin for me by the end — and there is a lame and too-lengthy gag in which the film runs out of money, so the characters need to simply explain to us what happened. Good or bad, this was born to be a cult fav with a certain crowd.

Moment to Savor: The sudden death of a very ugly-cute dog.


Out of a Possible 5 Stars

Genre: Drama. Thriller
Director: Kitao Sakurai

FF Summary: Larry Lewis Jr., who plays himself in the film, lives in the small town of Cleveland Heights, Ohio. He is blind. He is also a recovering alcoholic. Larry doesn’t let his physical limitations interfere with his enjoyment of life. He holds down a regular job, gets around on his own, and likes to get involved in all kinds of adventures. While walking down the street, Larry’s curiosity is piqued by grunting and groaning noises coming from a Jiu-Jitsu studio. He befriends the instructor (Darren Branch) and becomes his student. As often seems the case with complete strangers they quickly become fast friends, Darren has a secret life that will provide Larry with more adventure —and mayhem— than he could ever possibly want.

Should You Be Excited: Nah.

Thoughts: I couldn’t stick around for the Q&A of Aardvark, so I never learned why the fuck it is called Aardvark. So, apologies, but I can’t help you there. If there was some bit of conversation in the film that drew a thematic parallel with the hairless ant-eater, I missed it somehow. I couldn’t get into this film, yet it coasts by on its inherent novelty — ie, Larry Lewis Jr playing himself as a blind ex-alcoholic who is studying martial arts. Lewis is an intriguing character and I respected what the film was trying to go for, with its slow sneak attack transition from being a quiet character drama to a crime thriller. The only problem is that the crime thriller portion is also so quiet that it didn’t engage me much. And while Lewis works during the film’s low-key and comedic bits, he’s pretty clearly not an actor and it shows when things become more dramatic in the final third. It does have a great ending though.

Moment to Savor: The final scene, in which Lewis faces off against a bad man he’s been searching for.


Out of a Possible 5 Stars

Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi
Director: Lars von Trier

FF Summary: Not-so-enfant-terrible Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves) managed to get himself tossed out of this year’s Cannes Film Festival for allegedly voicing sympathy for the Nazis, but this didn’t stop his latest picture, Melancholia, from being nominated for the Palme d’Or. The story is a mash up of Armageddon and The Celebration, with Ingmar Bergman’s Persona tossed in for good measure. It takes its title from the name of an outsized planet lurking behind the sun which threatens to obliterate the earth and end life as we know it. But the approaching Melancholia quickly becomes a metaphor for the emotional malaise of two sisters, played by Kirsten Dunst, in the finest performance of her career, and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Also catch Kiefer Sutherland and Alexander Skarsgard in supporting roles. Played the New York and Toronto film festivals.

Should You Be Excited: Yes and yes.

Thoughts: This movie is really goddamn good. Days later, I’m still absorbing it. Von Trier gets crazy on us from the moment it begins, opening the film with an achingly gorgeous ultra-slow-mo sequence in which the Earth gets gloriously destroyed. Then we jump back in time and he continues his favored exploration of awful people being awful to each other, yet it feels less button-pushingly provocative here; just straightfoward dramatics. In this sense it feels like a mild departure for von Trier. It is also his largest and most cinematic film. The visuals are at times breathtaking, and though he directly denied it during his FF Skype Q&A (he doesn’t fly), the film is very obviously influenced by certain paintings — I mean, there is a scene in the film in which Dunst is looking through books of artwork that are later visually or metaphorically represented in the film; the poster is most certainly an homage to John Everett Millais’s Ophelia. Dunst won Best Actress as Cannes for this, and she does a lot here to erase the irritation I’d developed towards her in recent years (it probably didn’t hurt that she gets naked several times too). Her tired eyes and naturally bored expression are perfect for a character who suffers from narcissistic depression. And though the second half of the film is ostensibly focusing on Gainsbourg’s beleaguered character, Dunst emotionally owns the film. Her depression initially earns our pity, but quickly proves reprehensible. I hated her for most of the film, yet it is apparent how involved with her we still are at the end. What should be a very depressing finale feels almost uplifting as we reach the end of Dunst’s arc. I also really enjoyed seeing Sutherland in this kind of film/role. John Hurt is great too. As is Charlotte Rampling. As is everyone actually. Always great to see Udo Kier too.

Moment to Savor: The aforementioned opening sequence. One of the best opening sequences I’ve ever seen, no hyperbole.


Out of a Possible 5 Stars

Calibre 9
Genre: Action, Bizarre, Fantasy
Director: Jean-Christian Tassy

FF Summary: Sarah is a down-on-her-luck hooker. She’s been trying to get out of the life and has one last client scheduled, a big spender whose money will allow her to move on. But while he’s getting ready in the next room, her pimp Frank drops in. A fight breaks out and Sarah manages to stab him, get his gun and kill him. Sarah is fatally wounded but before she dies, her client returns to the scene. He happens to be from Senegal and was paying Sarah to be a participant in a supernatural ritual. He decides to do a favor for her.

Yann is a pretty typical guy. He goes to work, comes home, eats dinner, checks on his mom, goes to bed, gets up and does it all again. He works as a city planner in the mayor’s office. Unfortunately the mayor is an asshole, and the entire city government is corrupt, Yann included. Bribes and intimidation are standard tactics. While delivering falsified construction authorizations to a job site, a threatening note is discovered in the paperwork. When Yann is confronted about it, he hears voices from his briefcase. He opens it to find a gun that jumps into his hand and fires on its own, killing the rich land developer and his bodyguards. When the mercenaries hired by the land developer show up to avenge him, all hell breaks loose.

Should You Be Excited: Eh.

Thoughts: This film feels like what we might get if the directors of Crank remade Heat Vision and Jack. The premise is awesomely retarded, in the best kind of way, and at times Calibre 9 manages to hit great strides. But ultimately it all felt undercooked. With a high concept this high, it could have and should have gone further. Jean-Christian Tassy got me to accept the unlikely buddy cop duo of a man and a haunted talking gun. Yet instead of having Yann running all over town encountering an endless array of clever obstacles in which to play with this silliness, the film rushes to get Yann together with the villain and an over-dramatic finale. I also didn’t take to Tassy’s directing style, which is just blah frenzied editing/camerawork. This is a rare decent foreign film that I’d frankly love to see remade and pushed to the edge conceptually. The one aspect of the film that feels pushed as far as it can/should go is Philippe Bussière’s gonzo villainous Mayor, who punches out and then pisses on his secretary in his first scene and keeps getting crazier and more sociopathic from there on.

Moment to Savor: The Mayor shooting a kid during a chase. 


Out of a Possible 5 Stars

Still more to come! I’ve seen a lot of films in the past week.