Monday, October 10, 2011

A few notes on Fantastic Fest 2011

In retrospect, I should have blogged in real time at Fantastic Fest 2011 - for those unaware, one of the world's pre-eminent festivals of what is increasingly being referred to as "genre" film, a shorthand catch-all for those works traditionally marginalized for their genre, such as horror, sci-fi, action, and suchlike - because I would have fit in better. After every session, dozens opened their laptops, furiously typing their reviews for their various blogs, news sites, and what have you. It's indicative of the cultural currency Fantastic Fest, along with the Alamo Drafthouse (where it's hosted), Mondo (the poster company that operates out of a bathroom-sized annex of the lobby), and their other affiliated interests have gained over the past few years. It's become a must-do event for geeks of a certain stripe, nowhere near on the order of Comic-Con ... but the comparison in fervor is apt, particularly given that the last night's closing night film was a documentary on Comic-Con.

I missed that film. I missed lots of films, in part because you physically can't see everything that plays at Fantastic Fest (of 70+ feature programs, there's just under 40 potential slots over 8 days) and in part because you can't always see everything you want to. The screenings take place over 5 of the 6 Alamo Drafthouse screens (the sixth was dedicated to regular commercial screenings of CONTAGION - in my opinion, a scarier movie than anything I saw at Fantastic Fest). With badge-holders combined filling up the capacity of the available theaters, it's inevitable that some movies will be too popular to get into, particularly as VIP badge-holders get first choice. (Want to be a VIP badge holder? Good luck - this year it sold out in three minutes. I tried last year to have VIP for this year, failed, bought a regular badge instead.)

So I didn't get to see such much-hyped films as JUAN OF THE DEAD, or BULLHEAD, or MILOCRORZE: A LOVE STORY, or HEADHUNTERS, or YOU'RE NEXT (though that one we can blame on Lion's Gate, who pulled the second screening of it for some indeterminate reason - maybe because every writer who would consider covering its theatrical release would have written about it at Fantastic Fest if they'd been able to see it). I did not see HUMAN CENTIPEDE II, either, although I had the chance, but I did get annoyed at the self-important guy behind me in line one day who dismissed it saying the violence wasn't "that bad" and he'd seen "much worse".

(I really, truly have no truck with the fraction of genre cinema fans who seem to treat movies exclusively as a survivalist challenge, and pride themselves on what they can stomach. Thankfully, that's a small fraction of the audience.)

Do I sound negative? Call it a recalibration of expectations for those who haven't been. Within those expectations - knowing you won't see everything you want, knowing you'll be more tired than you've ever been by the end, knowing you'll be standing in the Austin heat at undesirable times of day in a hothouse of aggressive geekery - it is, really, a fantastic experience, a movie lover's dream. A few reasons:

1. Quite a few of the filmmakers - and a couple actors, and other demi-celebrities - make it here for the event, as has been publicized in the various karaoke sessions, boxing matches, and other events that surround the festival. I didn't talk to Dominic Monaghan when he was in the bathroom before the screening of THE DAY, or introduce myself to Harry Knowles, but I did browse through posters with the director of the Belgian black comedy KILL ME PLEASE, and had a great 15-minute chat with the directors of the first Israeli horror film, RABIES, after its midnight screening. (Something I realized too late - the filmmakers, quite often, are the ones who don't know many people here, and are often standing aloof. I would have loved to talk to the frequently-spotted-by-me, brilliant, funny, and incredibly self-effacing Panos Cosmatos, for instance, about whose BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW more in a bit, but I didn't see the film til near the end of the fest and I think he left immediately after that screening.) And while it wasn't the most memorable film I saw, I won't forget the filmmakers of ZOMBIE ASS walking in wearing only a sumo wrap around their crotches, throwing out Baby Ruth candy bars while leading a call-and-response "ZOMBIE!" "ASS!"

2. The Drafthouse philosophy of serving food and beer during films divides people. I think if I was at an avant-garde festival, I'd hate it, but here, it was blissful, perhaps a slight distraction in three of my twenty-nine screenings, more than made up for by truly excellent food (those peanut butter and banana cookies haunt my dreams!) and a deep variety of great beers, complimentary ice water, everything served in the least distracting way possible. Popcorn? Actually served in metal bowls. No crinkling paper. On the whole, given the Drafthouse option or, say, the person who brought a three-course meal worth of plastic containers in plastic bags into THE TURIN HORSE with me at NZFF, I'll take the former. Also, weirdly, the slight continual traffic creates a noise floor, almost like the static of vinyl, that everything sits on top of, undisturbed.

3. But, see, there aren't any other disturbances. Alamo famously has a "use cell phones or talk and we'll kick your ass out" policy, and re-iterates it before every film ... AND IT WORKS. I'm not just comparing this to NZFF, for instance - I recently attended the New York Film Festival, and almost every screening had worse-behaved audiences than the worst audience at Fantastic Fest. Well, I say "worst audience", but I can't think of a single bad audience experience at Fantastic Fest. Yeah, there's cheering, laughter, and so on, but all in appropriate quantities, particularly given the types of films.

And then, yeah, there's the films.

BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW is one of two films I fell deeply and passionately for, entering immediately in my all-time personal canon. Almost all twitchy, dreamy style, Cosmatos described the film in his post-Q&A as largely stemming from his imagination of what early 80's sci-fi/horror movies that he wasn't allowed to watch when he was a kid were like. To my eyes, it struck me as a Cronenberg script adapted through a filter similar to the revisionist giallo AMER, only using the two or three minutes of 70s and 80s sci-fi films where the hallucinatory montage takes place as a template for the style of 80%+ of the film, all with a thrumming analog synth score underneath. There's a structure it all rests on, and it became clear in the Q&A that Cosmatos had thought a lot about specific plot details and how everything fit together as he answered specific questions, but I didn't care how the ride worked. I just wanted to take it again.

On the opposite side of the accessibility meter, A BOY AND HIS SAMURAI employs very conventional style in the service of a very unconventional - and yet somehow warmly familiar - story. The hypothetical logline is both easy to summarize and willfully bizarre - a single mother's life is overturned when a time-travelling samurai shows up in her life and becomes part of her family. Also, lots of dessert making is involved. The result, on screen, is something that left every single viewer I talked to, viewers who had showed up for HUMAN CENTIPEDE II, using the word "adorable" in the most gushingly positive, non-ironic way possible. Yoshihiro Nakamura is a Fantastic Fest regular (at least with his films - he wasn't in attendance), and his previous film FISH STORY showcased a very different type of narrative while finding a human core to an outlandish story. That, more than anything else, seems his trademark - while A BOY AND HIS SAMURAI tries for a very different emotional effect, the seemingly effortless ease with which Nakamura achieves a tearful lightness in its well-earned finale makes him, in my eyes, one of the most overlooked directors today. (Well, outside of Fantastic Fest, anyway - the first two screenings were sold out, and it's only thanks to an encore screening that I caught it, at my very last screening. I couldn't ask for a better film to end on.)

My biggest surprise of the festival was a film I'd almost skipped. Nacho Vigolando's EXTRATERRESTRIAL received some mixed responses from its Toronto debut, where those expecting an advancement on the plotty, dark TIMECRIMES instead got what they felt was a disappointingly light concoction. Apparently, the first screening at Fantastic Fest also suffered from this, with one audience member aggressively shooshing laughers. Nacho assured us that this small film, meant as a break whilst he worked on a denser-than-TIMECRIMES followup to that film, was indeed a comedy and we were permitted to laugh. Thus released from the tyranny of expectation, EXTRATERRESTRIAL played as a bravely bold revisionist take on genre film - an alien invasion taking place largely in an apartment as romantic complications overwhelm galactic one. There's a perpetual lightness and sense of absurdity, while cleverly playing with the paranoia of an alien invasion, and the question of whether everyone is who they truly appear to be. My few quibbles (mostly to do with character likeability as the layers of deception grew greater and greater) were washed away with the unexpected, yet perfectly poignant, emotional note at the ending, nailed directly to my heart by a Magnetic Fields song.

Speaking of undercutting expectations, RABIES is one of the craftiest, most unpredictable films I've seen in a while, easily my favorite film that I almost walked out of twenty minutes in. Perhaps I should clarify that: it was a midnight film, I was exhausted, and the characters were behaving increasingly irrationally. But rabies does that. It's not a disease film, at least not literally: but there's a mental effect on the characters whose lives merge in this forest that echoes the corrupting influence of the trees in CHARISMA, and then there's a serial killer, but it's not really a serial killer movie, but the body count just keeps growing ... and then, there's the landmines. It's the sort of structural and tonal audacity that you'd see in a Korean movie (the filmmakers, Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, acknowledged the influence afterwards, referencing SAVE THE GREEN PLANET as a particular influence), and despite being their first film, they've made it their own: despite many laugh-out-loud moments, the closing passages manage to merge strong emotional effect with a dark undercurrent. As an Israeli film, there are many social parallels that you can inevitably draw; me, I was too busy enjoying LATE MARRIAGE's Lior Ashkenazi as a schlubby, overweight police officer. (The directors confirmed that there's lots of casting against type, which will be entirely lost on non-Israeli audiences.)

One thing that stuck with me about RABIES is the extent to which, despite the various national origins of films at Fantastic Fest, the true identity of many of these films shouldn't be seen as belonging to a nation, but belonging to an emerging, shared film culture. One of the most thorny, interesting examples of this can be seen in UNDERWATER LOVE. Shinji Imaoka directed the film, part of Japan's tradition of pink (sex) films, about an engaged woman who falls in love with the reincarnation of her high-school friend, who has returned as a sea spirit known as a kappa, in one of the least convincing costumes in the history of cinema. But death is coming to get her. Oh, and it's a musical. This is the point where most people's brain explodes, and the "Japan, you so crazy!" response gets evoked. But, here's the thing: it was funded by German money, including European script development, and making the film a musical was a requirement of the funding. (Imaoka made it quite clear that it wasn't his idea in the Q&A; as all his pink films, including this one, shoot in about 5 days, adding musical sequences is, directorially speaking, pain in the ass.) The resulting film, shot by Christopher Doyle, is on one level casually half-assed and on another level incredibly enjoyable for that casualness; I can't really call it a good film in a lot of ways, but I'd watch it again in a heartbeat.

One oft-overlooked feature of Fantastic Fest is the retrospective screenings. I fell hard for a 2K restoration of THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY, Fulci's 1981 haunted house movie, one of the more incomprehensible wild rides I've been on. It was one of the best, if not THE best, digital projection I've ever seen: the grain structure of the original film still pulsed with life, as if somehow a print had survived all these years with perfect registration. (Bill Lustig, who introduced it, implied that by going back to the original elements, it looked better than the original release print ever did.) I've long been skeptical about digital presentations, but the Alamo's projectors in general looked great and that presentation in particular made me a believer. (Now if only all digital presentations were created equal.)

Meanwhile, New York Asian Film Festival co-founder Grady Hendrix brought a treasure trove of rescued prints of Hong Kong movies. I got to see three of the four screenings, one of which I can't discuss (other than to say that many bullets were involved, and no, that's not a cryptic hint). DREADNAUGHT was a wacky martial-arts ride which manages to amble along effortlessly, joyfully, for something like an hour with not even a bare hint of a plot, instead relying on tailor-fu, internal medicine-fu, Chinese dragon float-fu, and whatever else they felt like doing on the day, somehow coalescing into an enjoyable ride despite its utter lack of narrative drive. THE ETERNAL EVIL OF ASIA, meanwhile, is clearly the product of insane people, slightly reprehensible, and pure exploitation heaven. Let's just leave it at that.

There are many other striking films that I saw - CARRE BLANC, THE YELLOW SEA, WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, and KILL ME PLEASE I enjoyed as much as any of the films that I've mentioned - but I've gone on long enough, and want to save the final word for CLOWN. The first movie made from a long running Danish series (produced by Zentropa, no surprise) uses a CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM-style concept, taking two real-life Danes and following them in their interactions with other real-life Danes (I recognized Iben Hijele, who you might know from HIGH FIDELITY, and Jorgen Leth of THE PERFECT HUMAN/FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS fame, undoubtedly the tip of the iceberg) as they commit epic acts of public stupidity and self-abasement. Combine that approach with a river trip inspired by APOCALYPSE NOW and DELIVERANCE, and their choice of bringing along an 11-year old boy, and you get the funniest movie I've seen in years. I'm a demanding person when it comes to comedies - I need to laugh often and hard to really feel like I've gotten my money's worth. This delivers both - and just when you think it might be easing off at the end, it returns back around for its biggest and most audacious laugh. So very wrong, so very funny.

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