Friday, September 24, 2010

Fantastic Fest 2010: the first two days

Fall is here, when a young geek's fancy darkly turns to thoughts of martial arts, chainsaws, and zombie squirrels. And once again, here in Austin, the week-long Fantastic Fest arrives just in time to sate our need.

Fantastic Fest is the brainchild of Tim League and the amazing gang behind the Alamo Drafthouse cinema experience. I don't know off the top of my head how many years it's run — I think fiveish — but it really is something special and unique to look forward to as autumn, or what passes for it in central Texas, begins. Last year, I took in a number of movies, many of which I liked a great deal (Zombieland, more fun in a crowd than perhaps at home on DVD; Antichrist, which I still cannot in good conscience actually recommend to most people I know; Paranormal Activity, which, yes, totally rocked, so fuck you; the wonderful low-budget UK crime movie Down Terrace, at last getting a release in the US; the even nastier [•REC]2; the surprisingly decent UK chiller The Children), and some of which were middling to awful (The Vampire's Assistant; Romero's heartbreakingly disappointing Survival of the Dead; a half-assed low-budget UK monster movie thing called Salvage).

So far, we're two days in to this year's festival, and I've caught more screenings than I did by this time last year. I am, however, avoiding most of the big premieres that are shown downtown at the Paramount this time out. I'd love to catch the Yuen Woo Ping double-feature/tribute there tomorrow night, but it's a lot of extra money, and I think I'd like to do the ACA Bat Cruise instead — which I totally missed last year because I was seeing two shitty premieres at the Paramount.

So here's a rundown on what I've been lucky enough to catch, and I'll be posting more as the week plays out.


Thursday:

Golden Slumber
Here's one where I walked in completely cold, knowing nothing than it was a Japanese film, which automatically gives it a leg up in my book. It's a thriller that gradually replaces its tension with a sense of whimsy and feel-goodishness as it progresses. Yet for all that it throws logic to the winds in order to get itself to its climax, it's never less than entertaining. Our hero is a hapless young delivery man, Aoyaga, who, back when he was in college, formed a little music appreciation club with three other friends deeply into the Beatles. As the movie opens, he's meeting one of these old friends for what he thinks will be a fishing trip. It turns out that forces unknown are setting Aoyaga up to be the patsy, like Lee Harvey Oswald (the movie kind of takes for granted conspiracy theories about JFK), in a planned assassination of the Prime Minister.

The movie opens great, helped immensely by Aoyaga's likability as a meek regular dude who doesn't understand what's happening to him and just wants his life back. It starts off leading you to think you're going to get a Hitchcockian "wrong man" chase movie like North by Northwest. And you do get that. But the tone of the whole piece gradually begins to morph, from suspenseful to frequently comical. This doesn't hurt the movie, but it does underscore how the whole thing is perhaps trying to cover too much ground. The movie takes great care to contrive elaborate set-pieces surrounding Aoyaga's flight. He runs into a number of offbeat characters — including an old man in a hospital with connections to the "underground," and even a serial killer (!) who behaves more like a mischievous kid — eager to help him unravel the mystery behind who is setting him up. The script is one of those that throws out little memes at you. Little details are mentioned pertinent to the characters' earlier lives, simply so that they can be brought in at key moments in the story much later.

The screenwriters just keep throwing ideas into the mix, with the result that the movie runs a little too long (at 139 minutes). It deals thematically with everything from the way the powers that be use media manipulation to make sure the public only sees and thinks what they want, to the fleeting nature of fame and the comparative longevity of infamy, while pointedly reaffirming the value of friendship and love all the while. It's a big hodgepodge but totally watchable and delightful in its best moments, and it got a big round of applause. Glad I saw it.

Ong Bak 3
No one in the audience for this third installment of Thai superstar Tony Jaa's franchise was expecting much. But even going in with low standards, it was disappointing. It's one thing to make a formulaic martial arts movie, but it's another thing entirely to be so bound to the genre's most overused tropes that you don't even bother to rise above them and offer something that even makes a pretense of being original.

The story here is so boilerplate it might have been autocomposed by a screenwriting program. So I guess there's this evil king, and Tony Jaa is the good guy who's pissed him off, and as the movie opens, Jaa has been tortured nearly to death, which then leads us to the usual de profundis thing where he must be rescued, then spend way too much screen time healing and meditating, so that he can ultimately go and open up several 12-packs of Thai whoop-ass upon said villain.

Yeah, fine, whatever. If I cared at all about any of these characters, I guess this would matter. But the script just goes through the motions, and even the fight scenes are pretty uninspired. Since I'm not recommending you see this, I have no trouble spoiling the moment where Jaa is just plain killed outright with a spear through his heart, allowing him to suddenly do this Prince of Persia time-reversal thing and win anyway. Which seems like cheating. And I didn't understand it where he suddenly got this power from. Just bad and lazy, with too much low-rent CG, even for martial arts mavens. And to think Jaa, when he first hit the scene, was being hailed as the guy who would make us all forget there ever was a Jackie Chan. There's a little thing called charisma that got left out of the recipe, I fear.

Buried
Well. Damn. Damn!

This is the one that's been getting all manner of buzz since it premiered at Sundance, both for its audacious premise and Ryan Reynolds' award-caliber performance. I must say, whenever movies are preceded by hype, rarely do they live up to it all. Finally getting a chance to see it knowing nothing but its premise — Reynolds is an American in Iraq who's been kidnapped and buried alive — I have to say I was stunned by its execution by Reynolds and Spanish director Rodrigo Cortes.

The whole 95 minutes of the movie takes place entirely in the crude wooden casket in which Reynolds' character has been buried. Since the pure horror and claustrophobia of having this happen to you can be dealt with in fewer than five minutes, the trick with a premise like this is to compose a gripping storyline against which the hero's ordeal can unfold. And it's in delivering a tense and believable script that Buried wins.

I don't want to give anything away if I can help it. Suffice it to say that the script doesn't simply present us with a sympathetic hero in the worst of all possible situations, but it has a thing or two to say about what we're doing in Iraq, and the questionable behavior of those American corporations contracted to work in the "reconstruction" over there, who are arguably war-profiteering in the most callous possible way. And it does all that without any overt political pontificating. Some of the calls Reynolds is able to place with the cell phone left to him by his captors had the audience groaning in dismay.

If you aren't already a claustrophobe, this movie will make you one. I really can't think of a movie that has managed to sustain suspense at such a high level so consistently from beginning to end. As the movie progresses we find that there are one or two things worse about being buried alive in a coffin than that it has happened to you at all. There is even, inasmuch as such a thing can be shot within the confines of a coffin, what can be called an action sequence. If you see this, do it theatrically, because the experience simply will not be the same on DVD, or on your PC via some shitty torrent. It's an immersive film that requires a darkened auditorium, and big screen, and a horrified audience to make complete.

After the screening, Reynolds and Cortes did a light-hearted Q&A session to bring everybody down, in which we were told repeatedly how much Reynolds hated the whole shoot (and it certainly comes through in his performance).

Finally, there's one little detail of awesomeness to mention, as an illustration of just why the Alamo is the greatest thing to happen to geekdom since Princess Leia's brass bikini. Prior to the festival a contest was held online, with the four winners (all of whom turned out to be very gutsy young women) enjoying the unique experience of watching Buried while actually buried in coffins themselves. Here is the little video of that moment in history.

I'm not at all ashamed to admit my geek-fu will never match theirs.


Friday:

Only caught two screenings yesterday, and blew off the Sharktopus premiere at the Paramount. Even with z-movie demigod Roger Corman and his wife in attendance, there are limits to my willingness to piss away extra money on something, however "fun" anyone wants me to think it'll be, that I know will just be pure moldy cheese. What I saw instead were:

Fire of Conscience
Hong Kong action movies, which were Totally The Thing in the 90's, have been enjoying a bit of a resurgence since Infernal Affairs kicked everyone's ass and gained international legitimacy by being remade by Martin Scorsese as the film that finally won him his overdue Oscar. What's interesting is now to see how the stylistic influence has reversed. In the 90's, it was all about American filmmakers trying to mimic the action style of John Woo. Now, we have Hong Kong filmmakers trying to mimic the style of the Bourne movies.

Dante Lam is at the forefront of the new generation of HK action directors, and I must say, he knows his way around a gun battle. He's somewhat derivative in the way he cops that shakycam shit from 24 and other obvious sources, but he definitely knows how to put an exciting picture together. I have to say this is the only movie I've ever seen in which a gunfight — in a burning building, no less — is interrupted by a childbirth. Which we get to see in some medical detail.

But in the end, for all its technical brilliance, I can't call Fire of Conscience a future HK action classic like Jackie Chan's Police Story or Woo's Hard-Boiled, because it simply trades in too many HK-specific clich├ęs. Essentially we have the tried and true formula of betrayed brotherhood. You have two male protagonists who begin the story as allies, and who will eventually be pulled apart and end the film as bitter enemies emptying numerous clips in each other's general direction. There are heaps of the expected melodrama — characters are haunted and driven by the anguished memory of dead spouses and dying friends — and the initially confusing story finally unfolds more or less as you expect. Still, those gunfights — many of which are staged in very public places like crowded restaurants and Hong Kong's notoriously tightly packed city streets — are absolutely top notch. Give this guy Dante Lam a really original script for a crime drama, and he stands to make an international name for himself.

Zombie Roadkill
At last, a little movie that delivers exactly what it promises. What was screened was in fact the first half hour webisode of a 6-part online comedy/horror series premiering at FearNet in October.

By now we've all seen both good and bad attempts at zombie comedies, but this one not only puts a fresh spin on things — yes, roadkill is coming back to life and menacing vacationers in a national park somewhere — but wastes no time in cutting to the good stuff and offering loads of hilarious scenes and dialogue. Much of that is delivered by Thomas Haden Church as a gruff park ranger who no sooner says "Stick with me if you wanna live, kid," than he gets his arm torn off.

This is all very much in the spirit of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 2 (the filmmakers are not surprisingly all crew veterans of Spider-Man 3, where they got to know Church) and Peter Jackson's Dead Alive. So if you enjoy the way those movies handle comedy gore, then you'll dig this too. The crowd was laughing like hell and cheering the more creative undead animal attacks — there's one whack-a-mole sequence that had everyone practically in tears — and at only 30 minutes, it was a perfect serving of sheer bloody silliness. Best of all, no CGI. All the critter effects in this movie were old school puppeteer work at its bestest. Keep an eye out for this one on FearNet for sure. How can you possibly miss a zombie critter movie directly inspired — as both writer and director confessed — by Monty Python & the Holy Grail's killer rabbit?

Wow. So, that's just the first two days. More reports to come, gang. Did I mention how much I love this festival? Well, I do. I love it like a lovey thing.

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