Fantastic Fest 2015 – The Best

There were four movies that I unreservedly enjoyed this festival. They are the best of the ones I saw (of course one person can only see a minority of the films at Fantastic Fest). Spoilers are included, so be warned (though not too many, since these are good I am leaving most twists and endings unstated).

jeremy-saulniers-green-roomGreen Room is a movie about a punk band playing at a skinhead-infested venue who accidentally witnesses the aftermath of a murder and things go bad. It’s written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier who also brought us the recent Blue Ruin. It’s got a great cast, including Anton Yelchin (Chekov from the Star Trek reboot and the main kid from the Fright Night reboot) and Sir Patrick Stewart as the skinhead group’s leader! Along with a bunch of other experienced folks (including Macon Blair, the lead from Blue Ruin).

It was taut and well-paced; the writing was really good and the kills were brutal. It was done in a very realistic manner – you really buy the ensemble as a punk band teetering on the edge of viability (“I wanted to buy them all a sandwich and a glass of milk,” said Chris.) All the characters were solid and well-defined and made good, realistic decisions – not overly stupid in the face of danger but also not cranked up to Maximum Riddick, you felt the danger and appreciated the protagonists’ attempts to get out of their situation. And it was definitely gory, the several women to my right were covering their eyes during several scenes – but it’s not torture porn, and the suddenness of the brutality kept the audience electrified. Little bursts of humor were well received as tension releasers. And there was an extensive punk/metal soundtrack with everything included from Dead Kennedys to Slayer. (They kick off their set in the skinhead club with the former’s punk anthem “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” just to tweak them.)

The first showing was mobbed and the buzz off it was hot; at the second showing they expanded to two screens and it was still full to capacity with folks in standby lines hoping to get in. This is the kind of movie that when I see it at FF I ask “why is this not in normal theaters?” I guess maybe Hollywood will only show us horror movies that are either super-supernatural Sinister/Insidious/etc. or torture porn like Saw 29, and any thriller or action movie has to be PG-13 related to make all the tasty money.  Anyway, this is a great movie and I strongly urge you to go see it (assuming you can deal with some bloody deaths).

februaryFebruary is a smart horror film that managed to keep me guessing what the heck was going on, no mean feat nowadays with all my horror movie experience.  Starring Emma Roberts (from America Horror Story and various movies) and Kiernan Shipka (Sally Draper from Mad Men, et al.) it features two girls at an all-girl’s Catholic school who are left there over a break. Very suspenseful, it moves at a steady pace and reveals events from three perspectives, gradually unfolding the total story. This was done skillfully – I have to say, some of the other films at the festival did this in a more hamhanded way, either wasting your time extensively with scenes you’ve already seen, or just messing with the timeline to confuse you, or other poor handling of their attempt to be “artsy.” They should all watch this movie and then go back and re-edit their own movies with what they’ve learned.

I kept trying to guess what the heck was going on. “She’s a ghost!  No that other chick is a ghost!  No the parents are!  No, they all are!  The priest is a molester!” They didn’t use misdirection gimmicks, it was just using enough genre tropes but presenting them somewhat flatly and letting you run with supposition. I really liked the evolution of your understanding of the plot and thought the ending was a pleasant twist.

The acting of both of the girls was great, a lot was conveyed just through silence and micro-movements of facial features. Very different from the old school stage acting, it made me reflect on the subtlety of the newer form of HD close-up acting. And the cold, bleak mood was handled very well. In the end it wasn’t innovative, using tried and true plot and mechanisms, but it was very skillfully executed.

April and the Extraordinary WorldApril and the Extraordinary World (aka Avril et le monde truqué) was a cool animated movie that’s family appropriate, something almost unheard of with FF films. It’s based on a graphic novel by Jaqcues Tardi, set in an alternate steampunk France in 1941 where the world wars didn’t happen and oil etc. hasn’t been discovered so the entire earth has been denuded of first coal and then trees for charcoal. The government forces all scientists to work for them, and the movie starts with a raid on a scientist family where mom, dad, and grandpa all beat feet or are disappeared and the girl, April, escapes and then grows up in isolation, trying to reproduce their experiment, an elixir of health and immortality. And then there’s intelligent lizard cyborgs and a plot to save and/or destroy the earth!

The cat was a big hit as a character and the alternate timeline (double Eiffel Towers! A cowboy Statue of Liberty!) was interesting (if perhaps not bearing a lot of close inspection from a scientific realism point of view). The characters were interesting and the conflict between April’s parents was a nice touch. I do feel that a little should have been cut out in the third act – this is an animated film, you don’t have to reuse the sets, characters wandering back and forth to and from the laser-cages in the jungle got a little tiresome. So not perfect, but a fun movie.

thewaveThe Wave – a Norwegian version of a standard Hollywood big-budget action movie by Roar Uthag, though with more restraint than those usually have, making it more pleasant than 2012/The Freezening/One Or The Other Volcano Movie/etc. It’s about a geologist working to monitor a mountain near a fjord because when it drops the resultant tsunami will wipe a resort city off the map in 10 minutes. He’s a rebel and is the only one who believes it’s happening!  And his family is in danger! The usual fare, but I enjoyed the rest of the cast, especially the other geologists, not being dumbasses (including Fridtjov Såheim from Lilyhammer). And though there was a race away from the wave, it wasn’t the unrealistic “running 45 minutes with the disaster right behind you” crap they do in Hollywood. So like a Hollywood disaster movie but better. Not revolutionary but serviceable, and frankly just not actively pissing me off was enough to hit a high point with me by this point in the festival.

Fantastic Fest 2015 – Overview

I just happened upon Fantastic Fest on a lark back in 2009 – I had a bunch of vacation to use or lose, saw an ad for it, thought “a genre film festival here in Austin?  OK, done!” It was a great experience and while I haven’t been able to go every single year since, I try to get to most of them (you can find writeups from some of them on this blog). And as also sometimes happens, fellow gamer Chris attended as well.

At a high level – this was a decent Fantastic Fest.  They have finally gotten a ticket reservation procedure that’s a pleasure to use… I remember having to rack out early after being up till 2 AM to drive all the way across Austin to wait in a line to get tickets to shows you wanted to get into (while already having a festival badge), then having to go burn a couple hours before the movie starts… Now it’s a nice little Web app open the day before and it slots you in.  I’ve gotten into everything I registered for except for the specials. I went on a daytime badge (have to tend the kid in the evenings) but had a lot of success just waiting standby on evening shows on days I was free.

The volunteers always run a great event – I always like seeing Winnie at work, she makes things happen!  My one suggestion is that most movies are shown twice. But ones shown in the day tended to have both showings in the day, and those at night at night. As a daytime badge holder this sucks, because towards the end you’re looking at slots with a lot of movies you’ve already seen in them and no chance to see some.  I assume there are other people that can only come at night, and have the same problem. The new South Lamar venue is nice though there’s heavy construction going on in the surrounding blockhouses of condos. There’s a lot of good food choices within walking or short driving distance, and parking is free if pretty full up.

The down side was – well, hate to say it, but the movies.  Some years there’s been a huge amount of great stuff. This year, while they’ve been some good ones, it’s been a lot more sparse. Big waves of Japanese and Nordic movies have come and gone, even Korea’s not making much good stuff any more – they’re farming Turkey for new blood this time and just in general it seems like a lull year for genre films. The programming was not at all strong this year.

And a lot of the films weren’t that good. A large number suffered from the “third act problem” of putting me to fricking sleep in the third act. I imagine maybe if you’re an indie filmmaker that made your film on a $9000 budget that you don’t want to “throw away” any of your hard earned celluloid but I watched so many movies that needed 20 to, honestly, 45 minutes cut out of their runtime mostly in the third act and/or brought their pacing to a grinding halt 2/3 of the way through the movie this year that it was really frustrating.

Here’s a breakdown of the movies I saw at the fest. I do spoilers in these reviews as they are not just for you the curious moviegoer but also are feedback to the filmmakers and I think precision there is important.





Vin Diesel’s Birthday Cake


Vin Diesel’s Birthday Cake – pretty pimp eh?


Orc Holocaust

An older article but I just came across it in Salon.  Orc Holocaust: The Reprehensible Moral Universe of Gary Gygax’s Dungeons and Dragons. I love me some D&D but I can’t say the article is totally wrong.  See this RPG.SE question for a related discussion.


D&D in Vice

Interesting Zak Smith piece on, Why I Still Love ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ in the Age of Video Games…

Reavers on the Seas of Fate – Season Four, Nineteenth Session

Elenuta the Fetchling

Elenuta the Fetchling

Nineteenth Session (10 page pdf) – “No Substance But Horror” – The party finally finds the bosses of shadow Boroi Manor – and are promptly defeated and enslaved. But maximum kill always finds a way!

So they bust in to kill Nicasor and company but they get a little caught up in murdering the mostly harmless fetchlings lounging around.  This gives the bad guys a couple rounds to get ready, which means Nicasor’s up and ready and his summoner friend Elenuta is invisible and already has her eidolon ready and a summon in progress.

It goes bad for the PCs.  Sindawe natural-1’s a save and goes down suffocated by the shadowy snake eidolon. He has to spend an Infamy Point to come back into the fight (“I was feigning death, like a 1st edition monk!”). But the snake gets Serpent as well and Nicasor cuts Sindawe down again, and Sindawe has no choice but to surrender or die.

But Nicasor doesn’t want these pirates dead – he wants the Heart dead so he can get out of this damn dimension. He lets them  heal and herds them down to fight the Heart for him.  It’s a tenebrous tendriculos! I didn’t beef that up from the actual module because I figured they’d be beat to hell by then.

They kill the Heart, and then they turn on Nicasor and Elenuta and get the better of them this time. They break the mirror and are out.  When it comes time to demand their shadows back they notice Serpent already has one… And it’s Chmetugo the shadow demon!  He’s free and back on the Prime Material.  He skedaddles to leave the pirates to decide if they should kill everyone in the county or not. After a moment of it hanging in the balance, they decide not.

And then they tend their wounds and plan their trip to froghemoth country! And they decide to take Rucia the waitress with them, lest she be discovered and tortured to death for being chosen by Desna.

Now here’s a bonus for you – all the bad guys for the whole thing, as I statted them up in Hero Lab, in PDF!  Nicasor, Elenuta, the Heart, etc.

Reavers on the Seas of Fate – Season Four, Eighteenth Session

Nicasor the Shae

Nicasor the Shae

Eighteenth Session (12 page pdf) – “Shadowland” – The shadowy version of Boroi Manor is full of horrors. But they find Wogan’s sister and nephew!

They actually negotiate with Nicasor the shae, the boss in here. They’re not real happy with Baron Stepan so they are not sure who to throw in with (or just kill everyone, but they figure they’ll defer that decision a little while).

Then it’s more haunted house. Furniture comes to life and attacks, shadows come out of pictures, the usual.

My favorite part is how they go to a room full of keys, with one magical key that looks like a tuning fork. They get it and escape as the rest of the keys turn into a swarm and attack; they get out and slam the door and it only turns their summoned cat into gelatin. And then what do they do?  “I wonder what this key does…” They hit the key and of course it’s a chime of opening and the door holding back the key swarm swings open. Oh, I laughed and laughed. You can’t plan stuff like that if you try.

Serpent starts showing disregard for loot, which starts a very long-running gag within the group where they suspect him of being a doppleganger. He’s usually a very “and don’t forget to take their boots” kind of guy.

They find Anya and Marek and try to go get out, assuming Stepan was lying about them having to destroy the Heart to escape.  Sadly, he wasn’t. But they still think he’s lying. Nobles, can’t trust ’em.

Since they can’t get out… Next step, go kill Nicasor and Elenuta!  Not strictly required, but they were about ready to kill someone…