“Fantastic Fest has never just been about the films,” writes the Austin Chronicle‘s Richard Whittaker. “It’s a destination festival—one which filmmakers attend even if they don’t have a movie to show, regulars schedule their vacations around, and at least one couple this year is using it as their honeymoon.” Whittaker chats with festival co-founder Tim League, who’s also the dynamo behind the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and Drafthouse Films. “This year his distribution house has half a dozen films on the schedule: Psychotropic history lesson A Field in England, the latest from FF regular Ben Wheatley (Down Terrace, Sightseers); SXSW award-winner Cheap Thrills; The Congress, a semi-animated meditation on fame starring Texas Film Hall of Famer Robin Wright; violent Dutch drama Borgman; German religious morality play Nothing Bad Can Happen; and Japanese supergonzo experience Why Don’t You Play in Hell? League said, ‘We are definitely using Fantastic Fest to launch and add publicity to Drafthouse Films titles.’ However, he’s not ruling out expanding their slate before the fest is over. He said, ‘There’s a number of titles on the list that we’re interested in, and we’re waiting to see how Fantastic Fest audiences react to them.'”
Whittaker also previews Shaul Schwarz’s Narco Culture, a study of “how crime becomes a cultural commodity,” and Randy Moore’s Escape from Tomorrow: “It’s true punk cinema”; he’s got another sidebar on Navot Papushado’s Big Bad Wolves, “Israel’s first horror film”; and he talks with Keanu Reeves about his directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi, in which Reeves himself “portrays occidental force of malice Donaka Mark, who shows a flaming fury against the story’s naive hero, superstar stuntman and fight choreographer Tiger Hu Chen. ‘I hope you enjoyed the black miserableness,’ laughed Reeves. ‘It’s fun to play a bad guy, because they have such passion. It’s so direct. It’s “I want, I need, I must have.”‘”
As Meredith Borders reports at Badass Digest, Reeves and League will debate “the relative merits of Tai Chi” before League then climbs in to the ring with Tiger Chen to defend his argument: “Tai Chi is a martial art relegated to elderly Chinese women and is inferior in every way to Tae Kwon Do.”
Which, you know, sounds like fun. But how about the movie? “Probably the most remarkable thing about the whoa!-teur’s directorial debut is that it’s not a complete embarrassment,” writes Michael Sicinski in Cinema Scope. “Reeves, together with fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, have made a passable second-rate Hong Kong film—something on par with, say, Derek Tsang or Jingle Ma, but with considerably more money behind it.” Two out of five stars from Henry Barnes in the Guardian, and a C from Gabe Toro at the Playlist. Man of Tai Chi was a Special Presentation in Toronto, which is where Calum Marsh interviewed Reeves for Esquire.
Fantastic Fest opens tonight with Machete Kills, which, as Clark Collis notes at the top of his EW interview with director Robert Rodriguez, “once again stars Danny Trejo as the titular hero, and he is again surrounded by a starry cast of actors, including Michelle Rodriguez, Sofia Vergara, Amber Heard, Charlie Sheen (credited under his birth name of ‘Carlos Estevez’), Antonio Banderas, Jessica Alba, Vanessa Hudgens, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Lady Gaga as a hit woman called The Chameleon.”
Updates, 9/20: Machete Kills is “a violently goofy grindhouse film that has a bit more fun than its predecessor Machete, but definitely lacks in the brains department,” writes Erik Davis at Movies.com. “It’s not as clever as it could be, or as nasty as it wants to be, but it definitely features this year’s most creative use of an ensemble cast. Watching Machete Kills is sort of like watching that drunk friend whose weird, outrageous antics are just the right amount of entertainment for your three-beer buzz.”
“An approaching comet, a cracked cell phone, and a dinner party are the building blocks upon which [James Ward Byrkit’s] Coherence is constructed,” writes Peter Martin at Twitch. “Very soon, however, Schrödinger’s cat, intermittent power outages, and fractured personalities are poured into the mix, followed by a sweet, sweet topping consisting almost entirely of brain-teasing puzzles and head-shaking twists. It is possible to be a bit too clever for your own good.”
“Mark Hartley has made two exceptional documentaries about the history of exploitation films, one called Not Quite Hollywood and the other called Machete Maidens Unleashed!,” writes Drew McWeeney at HitFix. “The first examined the evolution of Australia’s homegrown genre movies, and it was more than just a scholarly look at a list of movies. Hartley understood exactly why those films were so exciting, and he made a documentary that had the same sort of breathless energy that the films did, and he made a hell of a case for the significance of those films and those directors.” Patrick (1978) “was directed by one of my favorite of the Aussies, Richard Franklin, and it’s an effective movie with some smart script choices, solid performances across the board, and Franklin really knows how to screw with an audience.” With his remake, “Hartley seems to be drawing on a broader background in terms of how he builds his scares, and his version of Patrick ladles on the atmosphere from the very first frame.”
Updates, 9/21: “Though the script may not be the most sterling work of literature you’ve ever come across and the production was forced to work within a strictly limited budget, Isaac Florentine’s Ninja: Shadow of a Tear stands as one of the most exciting and engaging American action films in recent years for one very simple reason,” writes Todd Brown. “Florentine and his star of choice, Scott Adkins, are simply the most potent pairing of director and star working within American action film today. It’s the worst kept secret of the film world, really, as the pair have done this now a handful of times with the Undisputed films, in particular, winning a vocal and loyal underground fanbase, but it bears repeating over and over again until the day comes that the mainstream industry takes notice. These guys are really, really good and it’s well past time that a major studio took notice and gave them a shot at the big time.”
Also at Twitch, James Marsh on Greatful Dead: “Indie director Uchida Eiji looks to finally have scored a breakthrough hit with this darkly comic exploration of neglect, obsession and voyeurism that successfully mixes exploitation with an astute social conscience.”
Plus, Peter Martin: “Bursting with feral energy, Tamae Garateguy’s She Wolf (original title: Mujer Lobo) is a fever dream about sex and love and sex and then a little more sex. And then the screaming starts.” And: “Sneaky and disquieting, The Resurrection of a Bastard is far more complex and layered than its title might suggest. Bursts of violence and darkly funny moments are framed within the world created by Guido van Driel. The source material is his own graphic novel, but in adapting it for the screen (with co-writer Bas Blokker), van Driel demonstrates a sure command of cinematic techniques, especially impressive since this is his directorial debut. Impeccably crafted and ingeniously plotted, the film raises existentional questions even as it moves forward relentlessly.”
Kurt Halfyard: “The central idea around which everything swirls in Zack Parker’s Proxy is as brilliant as it is dark, exaggerating a real medical condition in a similar fashion to what David Cronenberg did with the hysteria and outcry when soft core skin flicks were shown on local TV stations—the result was Videodrome—or how Paul Solet examined in Grace how newborn children sapping their mothers resources, and bring about an anxious protectiveness. The best horror movies exaggerate the anxieties of our times, and for that Proxy has illustrated how the egos and minds of new parents (or parents to be) can be flush with the kind of endorphins akin to a junkies high.”
When he caught Proxy in Toronto, Brandon Harris noted in a dispatch to Filmmaker that “Parker employs an inspired, frequently symmetrical, Kubrick-on-a-budget aesthetic that expertly hints that this world is askew. Building upon the bravura visual elements in the director’s previous effort, the schematic but involving Margo Martindale starrer Scalene, this movie feels like the work of a director in total control of his vision, budget level be damned.”
Updates, 9/22: More reviews from Twitch. “Make no mistake, the premise of Grand Piano is 100 percent ridiculous,” writes Eric D. Snider. “Do you remember Phone Booth, where Colin Farrell couldn’t hang up or he’d be killed by a sniper? It’s like that, only it’s concert pianist Elijah Wood who has to keep playing or risk being shot…. Now here’s why it works: because of director Eugenio Mira’s total commitment. With a game lead actor and no shortage of ingenuity, Mira applies his considerable artistic talent to this stack of baloney as if it were a brilliantly crafted and fully plausible thriller. He sells it, we buy it, everybody goes home happy.”
The “sly, outrageous wit” of LFO, written and directed by Antonio Tublen, “contributes to a jaunty atmosphere, creating an environment where, literally, anything goes,” writes Peter Martin. “LFO is a diabolical joy to watch.” Peter also reviews “the eminently watchable yet only intermittently compelling Spanish stop-motion animated feature O’Apostolo (English title: The Apostle). It is a slight, ghostly fantasy that is definitely bolstered by its beguiling, hand-crafted appearance. From a narrative standpoint, though, the film dawdles when it could be exploring either the characters or its surroundings more closely, forcing the superior third act to start over, story-wise, in order for its resolution to have any impact.”
“It seems fitting that in the same year the festival honors Errol Morris it also embraces Mirage Men,” writes Dave Canfield. It’s a documentary directed by John Lundberg and co-directed by Kypros Kyprianou, Roland Denning, and Mark Pilkington. “The premise? That the UFO narrative and much of the conspiracy narrative, that have created such enthusiastic communities of true believers are in fact largely the creation of a constant stream of misinformation by various US Governmental agencies…. Of course the UFO folks are nuts. Of course the government lies. It seems like a match made in heaven. What isn’t discussed much is how creating an aura of unreliability around these communities benefits US intelligence agencies, puts the rest of us at risk, and obscures facts that the public would be better off having access to.”
Updates, 9/25: “The ballots are all in and counted, and it’s official,” announces Richard Whittaker. “Jodorowsky’s Dune, about the greatest film never made, and innovative mockumentary Afflicted are the two big winners at this year’s Fantastic Fest awards.” He’s got the full list of winners—and it’s quite a long one, too.
Also in the Chronicle, Marjorie Baumgarten recommends Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin, which Brandon Harris, dispatching to Filmmaker from Toronto, has called “a band apart and a cut above the universe of revenge flicks.” At the Playlist, Gabe Toro gives it an A-. Earlier: Reviews from Cannes.
Back in the Chronicle, Dan Gentile: “The latest kung fu comedy from Hong Kong director Stephen Chow (Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle), Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, follows scraggly-haired demon-hunter apprentice Xuan Zang on his path toward inner peace, acceptance of romantic love, and the spectacular obliteration of a simian samurai imprisoned by the Buddha himself…. The masterful mix of self-aware humor and seat-gripping action broke box office records when the film was released in China in February, and although details on U.S. distribution are sparse, American audiences can only hope that Stephen Chow’s latest masterpiece soon makes its own journey to the West.”
A talk with Jodorowsky’s Dune director Frank Pavich from Django's Ghost
This year, “Fantastic Fest offers some of its most eclectic and provocative programming yet,” writes Todd Gilchrist in an overview for Indiewire. Also: “We Gotta Get Out of This Place offers audiences little that they haven’t seen in one form or another—small town kids, dreams of escape and the interference of local criminals—but in the hands of screenwriter Dutch Southern and directors Simon and Zeke Hawkins, its familiar components come together in a unique way. A crime thriller rich with emotional resonance, We Gotta Get Out of This Place offers the kind of clean, elegant storytelling whose emotional impact eclipses the cosmetic horrors of its counterparts while announcing the arrival of considerable new filmmaking talents.”
Back to Twitch. First up, Peter Martin: “The spectre of death hangs over Love Eternal, yet it’s never oppressively dour or aggressively doom-laden…. Director Brendan Muldowney swiftly sets a swirling, emotional tone composed equally of minor and major chords, never allowing one to dominate the other.” Then there’s Amit Kumar’s “very promising debut”: “Because of its thoughtful, searching nature, and becoming modesty, Monsoon Shootout rises above other, more conventional police dramas.” And in Jim Taihuttu’s Wolf, “all pistons are firing, so all the audience needs to do is strap in for the ride.” Plus: “Though Miss Zombie has obviously been made with skillful intent, the film’s dry, art house flavor mutes any horror impact from its premise. And that appears to have been an intentional move on the part of writer/director Sabu.”
Eric D. Snider: “It’s too soon to tell whether Oren Carmi is Israel’s answer to the Coen brothers, whom he lists among his influences, but his debut feature, the darkly comic Goldberg & Eisenberg, shows promise. I get the impression that a grim sense of humor is crucial to one’s survival in Tel Aviv, and Carmi clearly has that going for him, even if some of the other elements of his film are a bit uneven.”
“There are so many things going on in [Randall Moore’s] Escape From Tomorrow that it seems like some impossible life’s work project, something that could be tinkered with eternally,” writes Dave Canfield. “Yet in it’s present form it already has a keen thematic edge and exploits it’s central conceit, Disney World as hell, with remarkable power. Whatever flaws are here, and there are a few, it offers a disturbing peeling back of the veneer of commercially based happiness that forms the foundation of the American dream.”