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Fantastic Fest 2011 Day Five

Whew, only halfway done and it’s already fading into the past, I need to pick up the pace.

Fantastic Fest 2011! Day five! Monday! Most of the filmmakers bail out, and it’s second screening time for the hot tickets.

Two Eyes Staring (8/10) – A little Dutch film about a little Dutch girl in a little Dutch house! (Well, Belgian, but that’s where we’d go to the grocery when we lived in Holland). Two Eyes Staring is a horror thriller, in which nine-year-old Lisa and her mom and dad move back to the ancestral home, and odd secrets start coming out… Like about her mom’s twin – did she kill her? Is she haunting the cellar? Does the mom not want Lisa? Are bad things about to happen? Yep!

I probably can’t give this movie a “fair” review. I lived in Holland for three years when I was young, I have a nine-year-old girl, and her mom, my ex, was a little on the haunted past/self centered side. So this movie landed right in my wheelhouse. It has a very slow build, but the twists are effective. I liked the interaction between the mom, dad, and kid – of course things don’t just go from zero to blow-up immediately, that’s how families work – and when weird/mildly bad things happen, you usually just have to live with it.

It’s not Paranormal Activity and doesn’t try to be; the horror elements are there but definitely made subsidiary to the family drama. To be fair, this is probably a 6/10 to those who haven’t lived in Holland and don’t have a little girl this age. But I do, so I guess I’m the target market!  Woot!

The Squad (2/10) – Okay, the previous movie proves that I don’t mind a slow pace. But The Squad totally sucked.

I was ready for some military horror.  I like me some military horror. After 10 minutes of film council logos, we open on a Columbian commando squad.

In fact, let me stop there.  A couple of the South American movies did this, but I’m going to complain about it here because this was the worst one.  What is up with the fricking logofest at the start of the movie?   OK, in some American movies you get a couple – Lionsgate!  Brought to you by Whoever! Produciton company! OK, fine, up to three I will tolerate. But these South Americans just run screen of logo after screen of logo.  Audience members started laughing after the same goddamn film council’s logo came up for the third time (no, seriously)!  Note to Columbia, Argentina, etc. – that shit has to stop. It’s like how your military strongmen have chests full of 200 bizarre medals – it makes you come across as corny, not cool.  FYI.

Now back to the sucking. This squad clearly has the military discipline of your average Boy Scout troop; they’re all violating orders and running out where they can get wounded within two minutes. They take over an empty abandoned base (apparently sending a squad of guys in by foot is the only way anyone gets in or out of this giant installation that clearly took heavy equipment to build) and they start to think oh maybe it’s witches or something, then they turn on each other. None of the actors are charismatic and the narrative doesn’t settle on any as a main character you can latch onto.The setting is awful, it’s mud + fog 90% of the time and the other 10% it’s unremarkable prefab buildings. The cinematography is dark and muddy and jerky. The characters are all goons; you’d think a Columbian death squad would have one intact pair of cojones amongst the lot of them, but it’s not to be. There’s just nothing good I could grab a hold of and say “Yes, but at least the.. characters, scenery, military tactics, cinematography, sound work… was good…”  In the end there is no tension, no release, no twist.  The ten minute MRE distribution scene was the most memorable, in retrospect. And it wasn’t good.

This movie is kinda like The Thing, without a Thing, and without Kurt Russell, and without John Carpenter directing. So it sucked is what I’m saying.

A Boy And His Samurai (9/10) – I was demoralized after The Squad, lucky I was about to be rescued by Yoshihiro Nakamura!  Nakamura-san’s movie Fish Story was my favorite of Fantastic Fest 2009, and I really liked Golden Slumber from Fantastic Fest 2010. So I couldn’t help but go see his latest at FF2011.It’s based on a manga, apparently.

A Boy And His Samurai is a family comedy. A kid and his barely-coping single mom run across a samurai who got zapped into modern day by praying at a Buddhist shrine. Now he has no idea what to do.  They take him in and he becomes a domestic ninja, so to speak. It’s funny and tender, and there’s conflict stemming from expected gender roles (without stupid Mr. Mom kinds of jokes). Even near the end, when the “young punks” scene jumps the shark a little bit, it’s a fun movie. And they’re not afraid to use the little kid to tug your heartstrings.

I described the movie to my daughter and she asked me who the “bad guy” was. That took me aback. I realized there usually has to be some bad guy or at least opposing foil in similar American movies to create tension.  But not in this case, everyone’s pretty much of good heart, and it highlights how even normal people trying to do the right thing are brought into conflict by the nature of the world.

Anyway, this just solidifies Nakamura in my mind as being a god of movies. I’ve seen one a year and every time they leave me moved and thankful. I can’t wait to watch this one with my daughter, once it’s released in some form!

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (7/10) – This Brazilian movie reminded me of District B-13 in that you can’t miss that’s a sequel. I’ve never seen the original, and it became obvious that it would provide some more perspective on the plot and relation to the characters that they don’t bother to provide you with inside this one.  Once you get over that, it’s a reasonably engaging criminals vs police vs the system tale (again, very District B13-like). There’s some great scenery and music, since it’s set in Brazil.

Whew, only three more days to go, but plenty more good movies!

Fantastic Fest 2011 Day Four

Sunday! This was a light day for me, at least movie-wise – for the second  year, my company scheduled its employee appreciation day where they rent out Six Flags Fiesta Texas on a Fantastic Fest day. I have a nine-year-old so I took off the day to take her to the amusement park – but after a day of 105 degree heat, there are still two movie slots to go after her bedtime! Feeling woozy, I attended…

Penumbra (6/10) – In this Argentinian movie, lisping Spanish real estate executive Marga isn’t a nice person, and the promise of easy money keeps her hanging out in an apartment she’s trying to rent while one, then two, then four people are there acting more and more freaky. There is nothing surprising at all about how the story unfolds, but it’s well done and you get to enjoy seeing them uppity wimmen get their comeuppance!

Rabies (7.5/10) – The directors discussed their path towards this, the very first Israeli horror movie! The funny thing is, they don’t understand why it’s the first either. The dialogue goes like this: “We want to make a horror movie!” “Oh, with how bad we have it, who wants to see those bad things? We want escapism!” “But, all our country’s movies are about war and stuff, isn’t that even more depressingly like the horror of our lives than some slasher flick?” “I don’t understand your moon-man language.” I don’t get it, and luckily neither do Navot Pupushado and Aharon Keshales, because they decided “screw it we’re doing it.”

Anyway, man this is a smart and deconstructionist take on a horror movie for the very first horror movie out of a country! I mean, you’d think they’d try to just execute a couple tried and true formulas to prime the pump, but no, this excellent film mixes tense slasher/all-fall-down thrills with “OH SHIT NO YOU DIDN’T” kills as well as nearly Scream-level self referential deconstruction of the horror genre.  Want an example?  Even the film’s title, RABIES, has nothing to do with the film. There’s no zombies or outbreak disease or anything. “We called it that to fuck with people’s expectations,” say the directors. Anyway,this film is more clever and cutting (in all senses of the word!  Ha!  Get it?) than all our current stock of wide-release slasher movies. It is way, way better than “our first one!” has any right to be. Go scary Jew power.

So, a short but fulfilling day. It was impressive – Juan of the Dead was a stellar first Cuban horror movie, and now Rabies is a great first Israeli horror movie. Where’s next, Chad?

 

Fantastic Fest 2011 Day Three

Day Two was solid, so can it get better for Day Three?  Yes it can!

El Narco (8/10) – (aka El Infierno) This movie is about Mexican drug gangs and the way of life they have become south of the border. Being a Texan, this is a topic of interest (the rest of the country appears to pretend there isn’t a war going on a couple hundred feet away from U.S. soil…). It features the alternately hapless and charming Benny coming back to Mexico from the U.S., which turned out to not be the land of milk and honey he’d hoped, to his small home town. The only decent jobs there are basically working for the drug gang, El Reyes del Norte (the Kings of the North). He resists briefly and then goes all in and Scarfaces it up for a while. It’s a great mix of dark comedy and a grim look at the reality of political corruption and dominance of the drug gangs in Mexico. This movie blends the wiseguy movie genre – it owes more than a little to Goodfellas – with the narco movie genre. Did you know there’s a whole genre of movies, the “narcopeliculas,”  paid for by the Mexican drug gangs to basically laud themselves?  And a whole genre of “narcocorrido” music that does the same? That’s how fucked up it is in Mexico right now. It’s gone beyond the “Boyz N The Hood” kind of gang as mini-society within a larger society, the narco gangs have become the larger society. The movie is political at times, but not hamhandedly so. You should see this movie.

Melancholia (8/10) – Kirsten Dunst plays a depressed rich white member of a very rich white family. This was like the whitest movie ever, it reminds me very much of some friends who are from a rich ex-British family in Maine. Anyway, the movie is appropriately named – it is like taking a little bottle of concentrated depression and drinking it. The Earth is destroyed in the first five minutes, and it’s all downhill from there. Director Lars von Trier of Antichrist fame brings the story of the Earth’s last days to us from the perspectives of two sisters played by Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Dunst puts in an AWESOME performance. I’ve been with some depressed women before, and OMG she totally nails it. The family interaction is great too, with the frustration of people who have a loved one with depression.  “Can’t you be happy, or at least not self destructive, for like ten minutes? It’s your wedding!” Seriously, this movie is super depressing, don’t see it if you’re not emotionally OK with that. I recommended it to some friends from Louisiana at the fest and afterwards they staggered out, eyes red, uttering profanity-laced outbursts about how it was “SO SAD!!!!!”

You Said What? (6/10) – Ah, those wacky Norwegians.  They took the premise of Takashi Miike’s Audition (a fake audition for a nonexistent movie to find women) and then it goes all romantic comedy as Glenn, the lad in question, can’t come clean and so puts together a whole film production to woo his beloved. Funny and enjoyable, largely predictable.  Good but nothing to write home about. They use a lot of late 80s/early 90s “Say Anything” kind of songs, which was kinda fun.

Knuckle (9/10) – The only documentary of the fest, Knuckle is a gripping documentary about the Irish Travellers (the Irish equivalent of gypsies). Ian Palmer spent 10 years with them filming them to make this film. The crux of the film revolves around ongoing feuds between Traveller families – in this case the Quinn McDonaghs, the Joyces, and the Nevins – whose grievances are settled by bare knuckle fights between selected fighters from each side, with only KO or surrender deciding the matter. James Quinn McDonagh, the champion of his family and one of the main subjects of the documentary, was in attendance at the fest, and we got some great insights out of him (especially about the time he got shot, which is mentioned only parenthetically in the film). It was hard for Palmer because the Travellers are generally quite insular and distrustful of outsiders, but he got some great stuff. The whole thing was fascinating – the generations worth of grudge over nothing anyone can articulate, the insistence on fair play in the fights, the pooling of family money to bet on the outcome, the role of video (a lot of the bad feelings were stirred up by families sending taunting VHS tapes to each other back in the day), to the ubiquity of kids around participating in the violence. Some fights you see; others had no cameras allowed – you experience them by family members standing by on cell phones (members of the family aren’t allowed at the fights due to risk of riot; the matches are refereed by other third party families). They range from four minutes and one guy’s down to a more than two hour (!!) fight that James Quinn had. It started as a clever scheme to keep bloodshed between the groups to a minimum, to settle differences in a civilized way, but you see (and James remarks upon) how the culture of feud and “fair fighting” ended up feeding on itself and growing to be an obsession. Even the directory noted how he became addicted to the fights and had to pull himself away from it to finish the film. Everyone there was hungry for more on this fascinating topic when it ended. The Q&A with James and the director was packed and went till they kicked us all out.

I stayed for so long in the Knuckle Q&A that I ended up skipping my last show of the day, I had planned to see A Lonely Place To Die  but it was getting late and I wanted to ruminate more on Knuckle, frankly. If you have any opportunity to see it, do so! Looks like it should be available via various channels now/soon…

Fantastic Fest 2011 Day Two

Okay, a light first day got me in the mood for movies, and today I did the full grueling day of five.  Five movies, especially five subtitled and/or demented movies, gets your brain boiling it its own chum, and a week of it… Eek.  That’s why I have only now surfaced with reviews. Anyway, there was some great stuff today, let’s get to it!

The Yellow Sea (7/10) – A Korean crime drama set in a region most of us don’t know exists – a Chinese region between North Korea and Russia where Joseonjok (Chinese citizens of Korean ancestry) live. Ha Jung-Woo plays a guy whose wife runs off to South Korea, and he languishes between gambling debts and alcoholism until a crime boss gives him a chance to pay his debts and go to South Korea as long as he whacks a guy while he’s there. He’s no hardened killer, though, and the people sending him there aren’t exactly being aboveboard with him, so it turns into a bit of a chase thriller as cops and various groups of criminals.  This movie is notable for good acting and for people not being afraid to fuck each other up with hatchets if it’s called for. It went on a little long, but that’s the Koreans for you. Hong-jin Na’s previous movie, Chaser, is available for streaming on Netflix.

Underwater Love (5/10) – When a high school crush comes back as a kappa years later to a decrepit old lady working at a fishery (she’s only 34, but apparently that’s old enough to be continually taunted for being old in Japan), wackiness ensues. The effects are bargain basement, but the movie has a certain charm. There are “musical numbers” that largely involve the cast capering around, however, they only sometimes make a token effort to actually sing the lyrics. Not “good” in the classic sense, but weird enough to be entertaining. The scene where a fishery co-worker seduces the kappa isn’t to be missed, if you ever wondered what a kappa’s junk looks like that is.

The Corridor (8/10) – I was surprised by this film. I expected a low budget Evil Dead or cabin slasher knockoff. But it was cleverly set up and the effects were startlingly good! Basically some childhood friends reunite in a cabin; one of them (Tyler) had a breakdown, attacked them, and was institutionalized years before, but he’s out and his mom, who was a surrogate mom to them all, has died and they’re gathering to spread her ashes, have a wake, and hang out. There’s a fun twist and interesting mythology. It has some personal relevance to me, we had a kid in our Boy Scout troop who went away to the funny farm for a while and then came back. We liked the guy, seemed like a gentle soul. He ended up chopping up a neighbor in Pennsylvania and hanging himself in the police van. Whaddya gonna do.

Juan of the Dead (9/10) – A Cuban indie zombie comedy.  I shit you not. Again I had low expectations, figuring it’d be a Shaun of the Dead knockoff in Spanish, but it was really, really good. It was filmed all over the place in Havana, a beautiful city most of us have never seen. It captured the Cuban way of life beautifully. Even more remarkable is how the director Alexander Brugues turned in such an amazing initial film – he described how there’s no movies like this in Cuba, and he learned about them and film-making in general from the hellishly slow monitored Internet connection out of Cuba. By all rights the movie shouldn’t be as good as it is, and it’s a lot of fun – really funny, but with some good zombie-killin’ action (ever seen 300 zombies decapitated at once?  Well now you have!). Brugues explained a lot of the (non-zombie related) shenanigans of the titular Juan are based directly on his brother, which made it even more funny. Even he is not sure how the Cuban film board approved his movie; his theory is that they read the script and decided he was a crackpot with no chance of ever finishing the movie, so why not play the good guy and say yes? Not just a zom-com, this skillfully done film provides a rare glimpse into modern Cuba – not just the settings but also the people. It’s as good as, but very different from, Shaun of the Dead – if you liked Shaun, however, you won’t be disappointed in Juan! I had a Cuban expat roommate in college and have a friend at work that goes to Cuba on relief trips regularly, I can’t wait for them to both see this.

Zombie (7/10) – Lucio Fulci’s best known classic. After seeing the restoration work on House By The Cemetery the previous day, I decided to see this – I’ve seen it a couple times and it’s a good zombie movie marred only by the darn muddiness, crap color, bad sound, etc. that the current print has. It didn’t disappoint, the movie is now beautiful, and the eyeball piercing has never been more vivid. Watching some of these old movies can be a chore in their current form and these kinds of re-masterings really breathe some unlife back into them. You can get the DVD of the old version on Netflix.

Day Two didn’t disappoint.  So far my biggest take-aways are the Korean thriller Haunters from day one and Juan of the Dead and The Corridor from today. But there’s much more movie goodness to come!

Fantastic Fest 2011 Day One

I was way too busy watching movies over the last week to blog about it, but now I’ll catch up!  I saw lots of great genre stuff at Fantastic Fest.

Having a VIP badge this year means that I didn’t have to get up super early to go wait in lines – plus, they got their Web ticketing system mostly working this year. So I got a lot more sleep than usual!

Let The Bullets Fly (6/10) – I wanted to kick off the festival easy with something I was pretty sure I’d like, and you can’t go wrong with Chow Yun Fat! In this 1920s era Chinese film, bandit “Pocky” Zhang moves into a town pretending to be its new governor, and is immediately set at odds with the local crime boss, played by Chow Yun Fat. This movie was funny, and the humor was actually more subtle than the average Hong Kong movie (where smacking someone with a big fish is often considered the most subtle form of humor). There really wasn’t much action though, so if you are really hoping to see the bullets fly, this isn’t that kind of film. And it had some pacing problems.  But, it was fun.

Helpful note – the hand sign we consider to be “hang loose” here in the US is Chinese for “Six.” So when you see the big carved wood “hang loose” sign and wonder WTF is up withit, that’s the deal.

Haunters (8/10) – Like a Korean take on Unbreakable, this was my favorite of the day. In an otherwise normal modern day Korea, there’s a guy who can control people just by looking at them, and he misuses his power for, you know, petty theft and thrill killing. But then he comes across our hero, an everyday worker who is immune to the control power. Conflict results! One of the most notable things about this movie was the diversity – the hero’s two friends are from Ghana and Turkey and in an early “working at the junkyard” scene there’s a lineup of workers and only like one or two of them are Asian. It was actually shocking; in general Asian movies largely pretend other ethnicities don’t exist, or at most throw in a couple evil white guys, so that was really remarkable. The Koreans are turning out some great thrillers nowadays and this was taut throughout, and the lead, Koo So, really sustained the story’s sometimes contrived spots with his performance. Warning, there’s only arguably a brief appearance from anything  you might consider a “haunt,” this is not a horror movie.

Polvora Negra (5/10) – “Black Powder” is a Brazilian revenge story somewhat similar to El Mariachi – Carlos is shot and left for dead and later comes back to wipe out a complex nest of backbiting crime figures in a small Brazilian town. The cachaça and the blood flow freely, but it is a bit plodding in places, lacking much of a dramatic structure. Has some good scenes and all the characters are interesting, though.

House By The Cemetery (5/10) – While the other three movies today didn’t exactly deliver on their titles full force – the bullets flew only mildly in Let The Bullets Fly, there was a dearth of haunting in Haunters, and though there was some shooting it didn’t really involve black powder in “Polvora Negra,” House By The Cemetery delivers exactly what it says, a house right by a cemetery. This Lucio Fulci classic has been restored in preparation for a blu-ray release. A family moves to a spooky house in New England whose previous occupants killed themselves or otherwise died in mysterious circumstances, and the dad is picking up on the research of the previous owner… And then there’s decapitations and stabbings and the like galore. Complete with imaginary friends and screaming children and creepy dolls. It isn’t a brilliant plot and it is a bit dated, but it’s fun. You can get the DVD of the old version from Netflix.

Day 1 was a success! I didn’t see anything that I just totally fell in love with, but all four movies were decent.  It started late, so only four movies, but no such weakness tomorrow!

Obligatory RPG related note – Haunters was definitely the best movie of the day, and could be good inspiration for a weird modern RPG setting or scenario akin to Mutant City Blues.

Fantastic Fest 2011 Starts Tomorrow!

And now for a break from the usual RPG fun – it’s Fantastic Fest time again this year!  FF is a genre movie festival in Austin, with all the zombie and martial arts and slasher and whatever else weird kind of movies they can scare up from around the world.

I’ve attended the last two years as well and it’s become my quite-deserved “me time” annual vacation, and it’s sure full of goodness to mine for gaming! I’ll post blurbs on each film; many of them are either immediately or eventually available here (iTunes has a Fantastic Fest storefront…). Feel free and check out my reviews from previous years.

On the one hand, my buddy Chris from the gaming group isn’t attending this year, he did last year, and it was nice to have a friend with, so that’s sad, but on the other hand I got a VIP badge this year, which will make the festival a good 50% less grueling. For two years I watched movies till 2 AM, drove home, and got my happy ass back out to the theater to line up to get tickets to the movies I wanted that day at like 8 AM.  After a week of that, you need a doctor. With a VIP badge, I just pick them at my leisure while there the day before and just show up for the movies. Whew!  More rest, and I can probably get in 3 or so hours of work a morning during the fest now.

So stay tuned for the weirdness!  I’m kicking tomorrow off with Chow Yun Fat in Let The Bullets Fly, a freaky Korean horror/supers movie Haunters, a Brazilian revenge movie Polvora Negra, and the Lucio Fulci classic House By The Cemetery. Wish me luck!

Fantastic Fest 2010 Summary

I had a great time at Fantastic Fest, and plan to attend again next year.  For what it’s worth, here’s my stack ranked films from most to least favorite along with ratings.  Compare to my similar list from last year!  Basically above 5 means I enjoyed it, 5 or below means I somewhat regret having seen it. There’s only three films that fell into that category, and there were a lot of really good ones.  None was perfect – last year I gave only Fish Story a 10/10.  I saw 30 movies, man!  (I’m not counting the shorts collection in that.)

Must See

These are all instant classics I’d like to own the DVD of.  You should see them – alternately,  some don’t have distribution, so if you’re in “the biz” you should get a piece of them and distribute them!

  • Sound of Noise 9/10
  • 13 Assassins 9/10
  • Drones 9/10
  • Rammbock 9/10
  • Golden Slumber 9/10
  • Rare Exports 8/10
  • Transfer 8/10
  • Stake Land 8/10
  • 14 Blades 8/10
  • Red 8/10
  • Red Hill 8/10
  • Bedevilled 8/10
  • The Violent Kind 8/10
  • Snake in Eagle’s Shadow 8/10

Should See

When you go to see one of these in the theater, you come out feeling your money was well spent.

  • We Are What We Are 7/10
  • Mother’s Day 7/10
  • Primal 7/10
  • True Legend 7/10
  • Let Me In 7/10
  • Fire of Conscience 7/10
  • The Man From Nowhere 7/10
  • Legend of the Fist 7/10
  • The Dead 7/10

Could See

About what you’d expect from a good day on SyFy/Chiller.  I snoozed from time to time during them.

  • Zombie Roadkill 7/10
  • 30 Days of Night: Dark Days 6/10
  • Bunraku 6/10
  • Mutant Girls Squad 6/10

Bah

These movies made me sad.  I would rather have slept than watch them.

  • Gallants 5/10
  • Bibliotheque Pascal 4/10
  • The Last Circus: Balada Triste 3/10