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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

Fantastic Fest 2010 Day Eight

One week isn’t enough for Fantastic Fest!  No, it’s a week and a bonus day.  And good thing; I saw my favorite two movies of the fest on this last day.

After a week of being in a movie theater, and often getting about 3 hours sleep between the late showing and getting in the early morning ticket line, I started to get sick.  A fistful of meds kept my sinuses in line till afterwards (I’m still suffering even now…)

14 Blades (8/10) – Donnie Yen stars in this period HK martial arts movie.  It’s well done and showcases some of the Mongol type areas.  Nothing too new and unique, but it was solidly executed – which made it better than the higher profile movies of the fest, True Legend and Legend of the Fist.  Duty!  Honor!  Kung fu!  All that good stuff.  It has light supernatural elements; occasional wire-fu and one baddie has a cool “evade death blows and leave a garment hovering behind” ninja trick kind of thing.

Red Hill (8/10) – Ryan Kwanten from True Blood stars in an Aussie film by Patrick Hughes.  It’s a constable’s first day on the job in a small outback town, Red Hill, when there’s a prison break and an infamous criminal from the town gets loose.  The locals freak, and are sure he’s coming back…  What could have been a straightforward slasher movie instead has a big twist, and the movie keeps tension without dragging.  We were all pleasantly surprised by this one – it’s not great, but it’s quite good.  [Side note – my gay friends that lust after Kwanten in his Jason Stackhouse role are concerned that he is not as dumb, and therefore not as adorable, in this part.  Fair warning.]

13 Assassins (9/10) – Now that’s a movie!  Takashi Miike gives us a samurai movie in the vein of Seven Samurai.  There’s a bad noble who has the favor of the Shogun, and a bunch of samurai are recruited to take him out before he goes and plunges the entire country into chaos.  The bad guy is Caligula bad, and the 13 samurai are cool – it’s hard to take a large cast like that and make them all distinct but they did a good job of that.  The entire latter part of the film is the 13 taking on like 200 guys in a town they’ve turned into a kill zone.  It is awesome.

Sound of Noise (9/10) – I didn’t know what to expect from this movie, but I heard from people that really liked it so I gave it a go.  It’s a Swedish film about guerrilla musicians and the tone deaf cop from a famously musical family who’s after them.  That description doesn’t really do it justice, but it’s quirky, fun, musical, dramatic, and more.  I hope more people get a chance to see it.  It gets my nod for best of the fest.

And that’s Fantastic Fest 2010!  I’ll do a recap next, but there were a lot of movies and the vast majority were very good.  I’ll be there next year, and since I managed to score a VIP badge I’ll be able to get some sleep!

Fantastic Fest 2010 Day Seven

Son of a bitch.  I just wrote up a huge long post and WordPress ate it.  Sorry, I’m not going to do it all again, here’s the highlights though.

Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (7/10)

  • HK movie starring Andrew Lau
  • Sequel to Fist of Fury (Bruce Lee) or its remake Fist of Legend (Jet Li)
  • Starts off strong with kung fu WWII action scene
  • Then goes noir with a lot of hanging around a nightclub unsubtly called “Casablanca”
  • Masked avenger subplot a la Black Mask, but should have either been cut or gone into more, it was an odd thing to be a small sideline
  • End fight scene in Japanese dojo a shout-out to earlier Fists movies, but wasn’t nearly as good
  • Starts strong, then goes downhill

Bedevilled (8/10)

  • S. Korean movie, didn’t know what to expect based on blurb and pic
  • Self absorbed bitch Hae-won living in Seoul goes back to the island she grew up on, which has only about 9 souls living on it, eking out a 12th century subsistence lifestyle
  • The men abuse, the old ladies enable, and the one woman friend of Hae-Won, Bok-Nam, and her daughter are the ones to take the brunt of it
  • Hae-won keeps to her “not my problem” policy as bad things happen
  • Slow build and then in the last act the payback begins
  • Very well done movie, not a typical slasher/revenge movie, great indictment of those who stand by and won’t speak up when others are doing bad things

Red (8/10)

  • Based on Warren Ellis graphic novel
  • Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren are retired secret agents who get provoked by Karl Wagner et al. and have to swing back into action
  • A straightforward but well done comedy actioner, much better than the “Expendables”/”A-Team” kind of crap we’ve gotten lately
  • In theaters soon – heck, I may go see it again when it comes out

The Last Circus: Balada Triste (3/10)

  • Strongly hyped by Harry Knowles (AICN founder, FF co-founder) in slavering terms
  • Balada Triste = Sad Trumpet
  • Spanish film by Alex de la Iglesia about a kid whose clown dad is killed in a battle during Spanish Civil War, which is fun
  • Forget that and skip forward, now he’s a sad clown and working for a circus, he falls in love with a circus performer who has a violent happy clown boyfriend
  • He gets his ass beat
  • Both he and the other clown get all deformed and have Joker transformations
  • They fight over the “sad strumpet” a lot and are all surreal
  • I want to cut myself
  • Some people justified the movie’s weaknesses because of its “compelling imagery” but just because you’re Spanish doesn’t mean you’re Guillermo del Toro
  • Q&A indicates that Knowles loves this because of the comic book references
  • Worst film I saw at the fest, agreement on that assessment from the people I was attending with

Fantastic Fest 2010 Day Six

Day 6, I wasn’t going to mess around – I put down five movies like they were unruly hookers.

First up, the awesome Rare Exports (8/10).  Scandinavians have weird myths, and this one delves into the early Swedish myths of Santa Claus – think less “jolly old Nick” and more “demented goat-beast.”   It’s the tale of a boy and his (modern day) reindeer-ranching village as Christmas approaches.  Some Americans (those goddamn Americans are always behind it) are blasting up on a nearby mountain, and it appears wolves have eaten all the reindeer…  But then you find out that the mountain may be where the natives froze and buried Santa because he was so nasty….  And next thing you know there’s fifty naked old guys running through the snow chasing a little boy.  This was a very enjoyable movie, it never goes over the line to slasher horror but you really think that any minute it’s going to…

There was a cool short before it, Unholy Night,  that similarly deals with the Icelandic Santa myths, in which there are 13 Santas, one of which is named “Meathook.”  You can imagine how that ends up.  They want to parlay the short into a film with all 13 Santas.  Sounds like a winning idea for a one-season Showtime special to me!

Then it was time for Mutant Girls Squad (6/10), the newest from the three Japanese psychos behind Tokyo Gore Police, Robogeisha, and Be A Man! Samurai School.  It’s Troma-esque schlocky gore.  I didn’t find it too engaging.  It was better than last year’s Vampire Girl vs Frankenstein Girl at least, but there’s only so far the sophomoric imagery takes you – “Girl with a chainsaw coming out her ass” and “Girl with katanas coming out of her breasts” were two of the characters in this flick.  It was enjoyable in a middle school kind of way for the first hour, and then I got sleepy.

Next was a real high point, Drones (9/10) – like Office Space, but with aliens!  Kinda.  A true low budget success, we get a tale of intergalactic domination told only with office workers in cubicles.  The writing is the real star here, and the film is clever and engaging.  The protagonist, “Brian”, discovers in short order that both his best friend and his girlfriend are alien infiltrators, but from different races that oppose each other…  But it doesn’t go all “Bros vs Hoes,” it’s a good-hearted film where the characters pull together.  Very, very funny.  We all came out of that showing reinvigorated and chatty.

Then we watched The Dead (7/10).  Fair warning, the people I was with liked this film less than I did.  They shot a zombie outbreak movie in Africa, on the border of Sierra Leone and Burkina Faso.  An American military man involved in some brushfire war there gets stranded when a zombie outbreak happens.  He travels across the country, teaming up with a local military man for much of the journey.

This film just didn’t have the bite it should have.  First of all, “zombie outbreak” is only about a 6 on the 1-10 scale of fucked up shit that happens in that part of Africa every day.  The filmmaker shied away from showing any of that, possibly out of ultra sensitivity to the inevitable charges of racism that would follow.  (They talked about some of the Internet nimrods that are already tooting that horn; there is absolutely no reason for it but people like to bring themselves some measure of fame by crapping on other stuff.)  Second of all, they talked about the transformation of the main character from selfish to altruistic over the course of the film, but the movie I saw doesn’t support that one bit (that he was that selfish, or that he changed).  I did like how the people in the movie weren’t all “turn on each other and be more dangerous than the zombies,” that’s such a cliche now; seeing even disparate people band together despite their differences (besides black/white, they were on opposite sides in a war a day ago) in the face of such a threat.

A side note, they started this movie way before Resident Evil decided to have its newest incarnation in Africa, so no copycat charges please.  I think some of the problem may be that they just couldn’t get some of the scenes they wanted in the can; between customs delays and bribery and being held at gunpoint and knifepoint and suffering from dysentery, they really had a hellish time trying to make a movie in Africa.  There’s a scene where he finds a baby and gives it away to some soldiers about one minute after; the director expressed his frustration that they wanted to do more with that but just ran up against the limits of their time in country.

Finally, we had Rammbock (9/10), a German zombie outbreak movie.  A sad sack going to bug his ex-girlfriend gets caught up in an outbreak and he and several other residents of the townhouse barricade themselves in and have to help each other.  This film also had a fairly positive view of human nature post-zombie, though there was the one “Mr. Twitchy” who endangers everyone by being a big selfish tool.

I thought their take on the zombie outbreak was a very compelling one. It’s a disease, and the result is 28 Days Later style fast-zombies, but you find out that being bitten isn’t 100% fatal, and that an infected’s immune system might fight it off if they stay calm and avoid adrenaline rush.  So you have a reason to not just kill anyone bitten, and a reason to be seeking after sedatives and other McGuffins.  It opens up a lot of interesting avenues that the now-traditional zombie disease closes, and I’d be interested in seeing more riffs on it.

It was also clever in that all their attempts for random townspeople to confront zombies with violence end badly – they really have to use their brains, they don’t all go Ash like so many movies depict.

This was one of the best days of the fest!  But even better is yet to come…