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It’s Fantastic Fest Time Again!

Last year, I decided to take a week off work and go watch movies!  There’s a genre film festival here in Austin called Fantastic Fest, and I was burned out, and didn’t have money to go far, so I thought that would be a good fit.  And it was, in fact, it was incredible!  Zombies!  Martial Arts!  Horror!  The Japanese!  Other Furriners!  More Zombies!  I loved it.

Thus, I’m going back this year.  Expect to hear less gaming stuff and more movie stuff for the next week.

Here’s a recap from my FF ’09 experience, with all the films I saw and the ratings I give them!

Also, this year you can follow along even if you aren’t coming.  A lot of the premieres – Let Me In, Buried – are coming out super soon.  And four of the movies are available on demand from IFC Midnight at the same time they play at the festival.

I’ll blog along as I go so you can all enjoy too!

Fantastic Fest – District 13: Ultimatum

District 13: Ultimatum is the sequel to the French parkour-and-martial-arts movie District B-13 (or “Banlieue 13” in Surrender Monkey), both by Luc Besson.  It pretty much follows the same formula – the French government’s gone all wrong and it takes two scrappy hunks from the wrong side of the tracks to flex some sense into it.

David Bell (Leto) is a miscreant who engages in minor vandalism and major free running, and his buddy Cyril Raffaelli (Damien) is a cop who loves him some martial arts.  As usual, the government/elite cops have a plan to kill all the poor people in District 13 by killing some cops, and putting them in gangland, and provoking a mass riot, and then getting the prime minister to bomb B-13 back into the Stone Age.  Damien and Leto have to evade and/or beat the snot out of 200 riot police and unite the five quite colorful gang leaders of the district to show the video of the shooting to the prime minister and stop the scheme.

The main problem is how unrealistic the plot is.  I mean, since when does having cops killing innocent people, even on video, result in anything other than “the officers were later cleared in the shooting…“?  Must be a European thing.  No, the plot is just an excuse to have cool stunts and fights.  And they’re pretty cool.  This movie focuses more on Damien and his martial arts then Leto and his parkour.  The fight scenes are nice and brutal, and like the previous movie they eschew CGI and wires for good old fashioned muscle-and-sinew work.  I wish there was a little more variety in the fights though, they are almost exclusively against faceless uniformed cops who stream out of everywhere like ants.  A couple mook fights are good in a martial arts movie, but I felt like the boss fights were lacking.  The pace is pretty good and it’s not allowed to lag too much before the next explosive action scene.

Like most Besson franchises, there’s a little bit of diminishing returns at work here; the action isn’t as novel and the fact that the plot is so much the same as the first movie erodes a little of the “dumb, but WOW” calculus of the original.  It is still fun, though, and listening to the French prime minister wax poetic about “liberte, egalite, fraternite” is inspiring.  In the end, I’m glad I saw it, though it’s not revolutionary it’s solid.

Fantastic Fest – Movie Summary

I will endeavor to write a review for each one of these fine films.  But here’s a cheat sheet!  I’ve stack ranked all the movies I saw here, from the ones I liked best to the ones I liked least.  There are really only two movies I disliked enough that I regretted seeing them, and only one of those intensely.

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!

  • Fish Story, a Japanese movie about a punk song that saves the world.  It is beautiful.  10/10.
  • Dirty Mind, a Belgian drama about a stuntman who gets a frontal lobe injury and turns from zero into Rico Suave.  Funny and thought-provoking.  9/10.
  • Stingray Sam, a sci-fi Western musical and one of the most hilarious things I saw at the festival.  9/10.
  • Mandrill, a South American version of James Bond.  Just enough camp.  9/10.
  • Zombieland, the big star-studded zombie comedy.  Nut up or shut up!  9/10.
  • The Revenant, a very well done movie of modern undead life.  9/10.
  • Doghouse, British zombie survival horror comedy.  Like Shawn of the Dead but with a touch of Return of the Living Dead.  8/10.
  • Rampage, by infamous director Uwe Boll.  Columbine meets Die Hard.  8/10.
  • Merantau – Indonesian martial arts, but transcends the genre.  8/10.

Should See

When you go to see one of these in the theater, you come out feeling your money was well spent.  Much better than the stuff playing on “SyFy”.

  • Sweet Karma, a chick-revenge killing movie with great gratuitous nudity and good twist.  7/10.
  • Salvage, a British horror/thriller.  7/10, higher with a better editing job.
  • Metropia, a dystopian uniquely animated movie.  7/10.
  • Crazy Racer, an over the top Chinese version of a Guy Richie movie.  7/10.
  • Kamogawa Horumo aka “Battle League in Kyoto”, a Japanese movie with a funny supernatural twist.  7/10.
  • REC 2 – The first REC was the movie Quarantine was based on.  This is the sequel, which kicks off immediately after the events in the first one, Halloween 2 style.  7/10.
  • Krabat, a German movie based on a young adult novel called “The Satanic Mill” (yeah, that’s how the Germans roll).  6/10.
  • Hard Revenge Milly, a bloody Japanese chick-revenge actioner.  6/10.
  • Ninja Assassin – Rain is a ninja killing ninja!  An over the top ninja actioner.  Ninja!  6/10.
  • Buratino, Son of Pinnochio, a weird Estonian film that’s like a light-hearted and musical version of Clockwork Orange.  6/10.
  • House of the Devil, a movie trying to replicate in every detail the typical late ’70s/early ’80s horror movie.  6/10.
  • District 13: Ultimatum, a sequel to the first French parkour-and-martial-arts dystopian actioner.  Dumb but fun.  6/10.
  • First Squad – Russian anime.  Pretty good if not exceptional.  6/10.
  • House (Hausu), an older Japanese film I describe as “John Waters does Evil Dead.”  5/10.

Could See

About what you’d expect from a good day on SyFy/Chiller.

  • Survival of the Dead, George Romero’s newest zombie movie, somewhat disappointing.  5/10.
  • Vampire Girl vs Frankenstein Girl, Japanese splatter comedy.  5/10.
  • Under the Mountain, a young adult movie from New Zealand; apparently based on some famous book/TV series and bearing some similarity to Escape to Witch Mountain.  5/10, higher if you’re a kid.
  • Yesterday, good old fashioned zombie survival horror on a super low budget.  4/10.
  • Cropsey, a documentary about an alleged child murderer from Staten Island named Andre Rand that just doesn’t deliver much.  4/10.


These movies made me sad.

Stuff I Didn’t See

All this is complete hearsay.  But I heard from many people about many movies, and here’s my summary of the buzz.

The Good

Love Exposure, a 4 hour long Japanese movie about upskirt photography (among other things) was rave reviewed by everyone I talked to who saw it. I just couldn’t fit in a 4 hour movie in my schedule.

Down Terrace was also very well reviewed, but I missed it.

The Mixed

Clive Barker’s Dread – very mixed.  Some people hated it and walked out, bored.  Others say if you stay for the end it’s a big twist and gory demented.

I did not hear good things about Paranormal Activity, a new major release that’s like Blair Witch in your bedroom.  Same with Antichrist, the Lars von Trier horror vehicle.

The Human Centipede, about a surgeon who nabs three people and sews them together ass to mouth  into a big human centipede.  It won an award, but I didn’t talk to a single person that liked it.

Random Thoughts

Shorts.  Shorts are good.  I wonder why genre channels like Chiller and SyFy don’t run more shorts just interspersed with their programs; there are a lot of good ones, they’re cheap…

This was a “genre” festival.  That’s code for “good stuff Hollywood doesn’t like”  It’s an odd mix – zombie movies, horror movies, martial arts movies, foreign movies, R rated movies, non-G rated animated movies…  In today’s studio system, films like Sweet Karma, a solid thriller that’s a solid R but not a “horror ghetto” movie like Saw, don’t have a place, sadly.  I was actually surprised at how many movies weren’t traditional horror/sci-fi/martial arts genre movies.

Fantastic Fest – Day 8

The final day of Fantastic Fest was as fun as the first.  Except, for some reason, the line for tickets in the morning was even longer!  I swear, the lines got longer as the festival went on, not shorter.

On my slate for the day were:

Sadly I didn’t get into Daybreakers, not even on standby.  I had seen everything else in the slot, so I had a beer and went home to get some decent sleep before work the next day.

The festival was DOPE.  I really enjoyed it.  The skilled Alamo staff and ticketing system made it a very painless experience.  The only way it could have been better is if I had a VIP badge.  They put the 2010 badges on sale during the festival and they sold out in a minute and a half.  Doh.  The demand is outgrowing the supply; maybe they need to expand to two venues full time or something.

I met a lot of fun people.  Shouts out to Tyler from Shreveport and Chris the Shakyface Queen.  And I’m crushing on Rae, the Alamo chick who kept everything running on time.  Everyone was very friendly and it was easy to strike up conversations with fans, filmmakers, and everybody else.

Fantastic Fest – House of the Devil

The House of the Devil, by Ti West (Cabin Fever 2, The Wicked), is a homage to late ’70’s/early ’80’s horror movies and does a great job of slavishly reproducing the look and feel of movies from that time, from the lead actress’ feathered hair to the cinematography, title and credits, everything.

The lead, Samantha (Jocelyn Donahue) is a poor college student trying to make enough money to get a place of her own, and takes a babysitting job at a big house out of the city to that end and OH GOD SATANISTS!  The plot is the usual chick chased around a big house thing.  Donahue does a good job and the movie is suspenseful, it gets you with a couple good scares.   It resembles a film made in 1982 in just about every respect – story, effects, score, characters.  (With the welcome exception that the lighting work didn’t suck as bad as it did in the older movies, always a pet peeve of mine.)

That’s a cool and interesting accomplishment, and I enjoyed my time watching House of the Devil enough, but I didn’t think it was all that interesting once you got past the ’80’s reproduction thing.  It was a little bit too much Halloween meets Rosemary’s Baby; I liked the ’80’s tone but wanted the plot to be a little more than a retread.  It was gripping, though, and would be somewhere in the top 30% of 1980s horror movies.  Which, come to think of it, puts it above about 90% of the crap put out in the last year or so, thus I guess in the end analysis House of the Devil is pretty good.

Fantastic Fest – Buratino, Son of Pinnochio

Buratino, Son of Pinnochio is a very odd but good-hearted Estonian musical.  Buratino’s mother wishes upon a star for a son and is suddenly impregnated by a…  Fairy rape splinter from heaven, I guess?  Anyway, she comes to full term immediately and has a wooden boy as a son, who as soon as he loses his bark looks normal (as normal as anyone looks hereabouts).  Flash forward to the teen years, and Buratino and his friends in “Badville” go over to roust the citizens of “Goodville” for spare cash and outrun/terrorize their police force.  The bizarrely costumed youth gang brings to mind images from A Clockwork Orange (though the tone is diametrically opposite). Eventually some bad guy from Goodville (that’s a good name for a band!) named Karabas Barabas sends his thugs after Buratino to kidnap him to get some kind of “seeds” from inside him.  And he has a hot blue-haired daughter, Malvina, who Buratino naturally falls in love with at first sight.

I thought Buratino was charming and upbeat, if not very polished.  Characters frequently burst into song so you get a bit of rock opera thing going on.  The twists and turns are humorously bizarre (Pinnochio himself, who no one knew was Buratino’s father prior to this, turns up later on) and there’s all kinds of over the top cartoon style silliness (to see for long distances, people just make their hands into binoculars; people get exploded and tossed a quarter mile and only end up disheveled).  Sure, it’s goofy, but has a real heart.  It was Rasmus Merivoo’s first film done while he was in school on a shoestring budget and a very short timeline, and shot in Russia to boot.

Buratino, Son of Pinnochio was fun, weird, and happy.  The musical bits are surprisingly good.  The rest is obviously low budget but solidly done.  I enjoyed its off-beat humor.

Fantastic Fest – Day 7

By skipping the “100 Best Kills” party last night, I got something approaching 8 hours of sleep.  Woot! But then the Alamo ticket line was even longer than it has been on previous days.  Boo.

My lineup for the day:

  • Sweet Karma, a revenge killing movie with, I am told, great gratuitous nudity
  • Yesterday, good old fashioned zombie survival horror
  • Private Eye, a Korean pulp detective film
  • Doghouse, yet more zombie survival horror

I had been planning on Private Eye but then the buzz on Fish Story was so good I was going to switch, but it’s sold out, so back to Private Eye.  Maybe I’ll try standby for Fish Story and fall back if necessary.

Also under consideration was S&M Hunter in the midnight slot – but it turns out it’s not just in the midnight slot, but over at the Alamo Ritz instead of here so would require a time-crunched transition and paying for parking downtown.  That’s two strikes so unless I am feeling REALLY motivated for some softcore tonight I’ll pass.

Fantastic Fest – Day 6

Whew, caught up on my “daily” postings.  Pretty much every day I wake up, drive to the Alamo 2+ hours early to get in line and get tickets, watch movies for 14 hours, drive home, and crash.  Tim, one of the festival’s co-chairs, introduced the first movie of the day with “Welcome to day 17 of Fantastic Fest!” and that’s certainly what it feels like.

What am I seeing today, you ask?  Well, the plan is:

  • Salvage, a British horror/thriller
  • Rampage, by infamous director Uwe Boll.  I wasn’t planning on seeing this but all the buzz I hear from people has been so positive that I’m going to catch it.
  • Ninja Assassin – if I can get in on standby, it sold out quick.  Otherwise, Succubus.
  • Short Fuse, a collection of shorts
  • The 100 Best Kills party, if I don’t feel like going home and to bed at midnight

Yesterday was a success in retrospect; though I wanted to walk out of Hard Revenge Milly: Bloody Battle, both Mandrill and Stingray Sam are sticking with me as high points of the festival.

Fantastic Fest – Day 5

Monday has come and with it the second half of the festival.  I’m starting to have to watch my bank account closely, as being in the Alamo all day is harmful to my checking account balance.

Today I saw:

Some were really good and some were really bad; this was definitely the biggest mixed-bag day for me.  Stingray Sam and Mandrill are AWESOME.  Cropsey was not.  Hard Revenge Milly was decent but the sequel, Bloody Battle, was awful.  Full reviews will follow!

Fantastic Fest – Day 4

I was a bit disappointed with yesterday; my chosen lineup wasn’t as strong as the first two days’ had been.  So I took off the first half of the day to spend some time with my daughter, as a week’s a long time to spend away from her.

There was still time for a pretty good set of movies – since I got there late I didn’t get tickets to all the ones I wanted but that’s what “standby” is for; I’ve had good luck with it.  My agenda consisted of:

  • Buratino, Son of Pinnochio, a weird Estonian film that’s like a light-hearted and musical version of Clockwork Orange
  • Dirty Mind, about a Belgian stuntman who gets a frontal lobe injury and turns from zero-nerd into Rico Suave
  • House of the Devil, a movie trying to replicate in every detail the typical late ’70s/early ’80s horror movie
  • District 13: Ultimatum, a sequel to the first French parkour-and-martial-arts dystopian actioner

Reviews will follow, but all these were good in their own way!  Especially Dirty Mind, which I think is probably the best movie I’ve seen so far.

Fantastic Fest – Survival of the Dead

George Romero, the grandfather of modern zombie cinema, was in attendance to show off his new movie Survival of the Dead.  It’s a spinoff of the recent “Diary of the Dead” and, like it, is completely independent.  He says he envisions doing a four movie series like the first “of the Dead” linked series (Night, Dawn, Day) but along this new, different storyline.

I am always of two minds about Romero.  He’s of course a seminal figure in the field, his first zombie movie especially was brilliant, and has spawned an entire genre.  But…  His ideas aren’t aging well, and it often seems to be more of the same, without the additional polish you would tend to hope would come to pass over a career spanning so many decades.  I’d use a geek analogy to Gary Gygax, co-creator and main popularizer of the Dungeons & Dragons game – yay, he created a lasting cultural icon, but then over the next three decades he kept regurgitating the same ideas without, really, much evolution and became less and less relevant.  (It’s a step better than the Linus Pauling syndrome, where someone who was brilliant in a given field picks up crackpot theories in another – Pauling was a brilliant chemist who gave us several important theories, especially on the nature of atoms, but later in life hooked in to the idea that megadoses of Vitamin C would cure anyone of anything and went onto the quack circuit.)

Anyway, Survival of the Dead, as I feared, has its good points but also has many weaknesses and inconsistencies.  It follows some ex-National Guardsmen gone wrong (and a sassy kid they pick up) as they go to an island rumored to be free of the undead, but instead run afoul of a family feud.  Romero said he was going for a Western feel with this one, but it felt like he briefed one set of actors (the islanders) on that and neglected to brief the other (the Guard) and it yielded an extremely inconsistent tone.  Furthermore, though generally “serious,” there are moments of camp, like one zombie kill where the cap of its skull spins around before coming to a rest on its neck-stump like something out of Army of Darkness.  Similarly, at times it seems like life is going on OK in the U.S. despite the zombie plagues – late night hosts joke about “deadheads” and the Internet is still working – but then it seems like every single location is infested with undead and completely unlivable.  The movie couldn’t figure out what it wanted to be and veered wildly between several different tones.

The nominal addition to the Living Dead mythos here is that one of the islander families doesn’t want to kill the zombies, but keep them around as revered ancestors; rationalizing it as maybe someone will find a cure one day.  This could be an interesting premise, but it ends up being incoherent – the family is “zombie ranching” on their farm but carelessly kills them plenty themselves.  Then they change their story to “trying to teach them to eat something besides people!”  But no matter how you look at it, that’s stupid and pointless.  First, teaching zombies to eat livestock would just denude the world of animals as well as humans.  Second, zombies don’t need to eat – they just kill and “eat” out of their bizarre undead natures.  It’s not like they can “fill up” on something – they’ll eat your dog and then eat you;  you’re not being used as food per se, it’s not like they get nutrition out of it.

In the end, the failure of this movie and the other more recent Dead movies can’t be blamed on budget – it’s the script, and an inability to craft a coherent narrative.

Fantastic Fest – Metropia

Metropia is an animated feature set in a European dystopian future (is there any other kind?).  People still live on the surface but apparently never travel there, instead using the huge interconnected subway system controlled by the Trexx corporation.  Roger has an indifferent life – working as a drone, his relationship on the rocks, etc.  His only step away from “normalcy” is enjoying bicycling instead of using the metro.  But apparently that’s enough – the voice in his head that tells him to buy Viagra and conform becomes jarring to him.  He thinks he’s going crazy until he sees the cover girl from the shampoo everyone uses, and starts to follow her around instead of going to work – this spirals him into a web of intrigue.  The movie recalls themes from Brazil and A Scanner Darkly.

The animation style is unique and weird.  People’s heads are large and facial features very realistic, but the rest of their bodies and the world are more stylized.  It fits the Kafkaesque feel they’re going for and allows for maximal expressiveness and acting on the part of the characters, a double win.

The plot is pretty interesting – turns out the ubiquitous Trexx Corp. has graduated from just putting cameras in everyone’s TV set to mind – if not control, influence – via their ubiquitous shampoo; they have a bank of call center type employees who can see through people’s eyes and speak into their minds.  Roger is never sure who to trust – his girlfriend, the shampoo cover girl he’s obsessed with, his “control” who talks into his head and looks disturbingly like him…  It’s a conspiracy thriller about control and perception.  I liked it quite a bit, as I did the somewhat similarly themed (and also weirdly animated, though in a completely different style) A Scanner Darkly.  It’s director Tarik Saleh’s first movie and as a freshman outing I think it’s amazing.