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Fantastic Fest: Judgment Day

Verdicts are in, awards have been given – in the form of beer mugs whose contents were required to be immediately chugged onstage – and while Fantastic Fest is still not over, my part in it for this year is. Now that the jury has long since reached a verdict, I’m free to talk about it a little bit.

Perhaps obviously, but maybe not, there was no remote chance I was going to have to watch most of the movies in the entire festival, and certainly the likes of Looper and Frankenweenie were not seeking or needing any kind of awards. No, the films that were considered to be in competition were divided up into categories, and then each category got a jury. Mine was “Fantastic Features,” and considering that many of these selections had nothing in common with one another, I have taken that to mean “features that aren’t fittable in the already existing genre slots of horror, documentary and comedy.”

Some of the movies were available as online streaming video (no, I won’t tell you where, but it was legit), others as DVDs, and still more only viewable at the festival on the big screen, sometimes only at one specific time. I know, boo-hoo, right? Such a hard life. Especially at a theater that is also a full-on restaurant, with menu items like a milkshake that mixes ancho chocolate and vanilla cinnamon flavored ice creams and tops them with a bone-shaped cookie. Real food, not movie-theater food, although popcorn is available. Never saw anybody order it, though.

So let’s talk about the movies at hand. These were the contenders seeking my approval:

Antiviral – David Cronenberg’s son Brandon is clearly well-versed in the body-horror themes of his father, creating a cautionary sci-fi tale about a future in which our obsession with celebrity has led one company to actually harvest diseases from the famous and infect their most rabid fans for a price; in an arguably more-disgusting side plot, the fans also buy and eat steaks cultivated from cloned celebrity cells. Great premise for a Twilight Zone episode, but where do you take it from there? Nowhere much, unfortunately. Creepy protagonist Syd (Calab Landry-Jones) never really gives us a point of entrance into his thinking, and the younger Cronenberg doesn’t seem to have much more to say than that a culture blindly worshipping the famous is diseased. Yep, got the point. Next.

Berberian Sound Studio – This is a film that almost seems like the result of a perverse Lars von Trier exercise: make a movie that’s a tribute to a particular genre (in this case, Italian giallo horror) without showing any elements that are the actual hallmarks of it. Confused? Let’s get specific. Toby Jones plays a sound mixer hired to work on an Italian exploitation flick, and the rest of the story follows him doing his job in the studio, without ever once showing us any of the film being projected on the screen right in front of him as he creates his aural magic. He has culture-clash issues with the emotional Italians! He uses wacky objects to make scary sounds! Then about ten minutes before the film ends, things get really surreal in a way I wish they had from the beginning. Great lighting, production design and Jones being dependable isn’t enough to make this an accessible tale beyond the real life filmmakers who’ll relate directly.

Dois Coelhos (Two Rabbits) – A high-energy crime/action movie from Brazil, in which a man with a visible head injury plots revenge on a highly connected gangster, in a scheme that involves his girlfriend (a corrupt DA leaking information to her husband, a criminal defense attorney), a sleazy politician, an accidental mugger, the victim of a hit and run accident, and more. The story is narrated in nonlinear fashion, with flashbacks indicated and abruptly segued into via animation and narration – this, presumably, is a side effect of our hero’s head trauma. Not exactly original – think Guy Ritchie goes to the favela – but definitely a ton of fun, with Marat Descartes a standout as the villainous Maicon, who likes to pretend he’s a nice guy but really ain’t. Since we don’t give supporting actor awards, however, all he gets from us (or me, at least) are these kind words.

I Declare War – Think Bugsy Malone, sort of, as a war movie. An all-kid cast enacts an epic battle of capture the flag, in the woods, unsupervised. Splattering an opponent with a red-paint grenade “kills” them – they go home, never to return to the story. It’s a sharp attempt to capture the most epic make-believe battles you ever fought as a kid, with better scripting than you were probably capable of. I appreciate what it’s going for, but still felt the acting was a little weak overall, with only the sole female Mackenzie Munro a real standout as the blossoming teen beginning to become aware of how to use feminine wiles to divide and conquer the boys. Worth a look, but better liked by others than me.

Lee’s Adventure – Jackie Chan’s son Jaycee looks to be aspiring toward more serious stretches of the thespian muscles (as opposed to, say, actual muscles) than his dad, but he’s still likely to draw unfair comparisons, as they look alike and the son still feels very tentative. In part, that may be due to the character he’s playing here – an obsessive gamer with a mental disorder that distorts his perception of time, resulting in episodes where he can move at super speeds, and moments in which a year has passed though he only perceives a day or a week. When he meets a girl who suffers from the same disorder, it’s a dream connection, not unlike one of Dredd‘s slo-mo drug hallucinations made semi-permanent; but then she starts to become “cured,” and (this isn’t the spoiler it might appear to be) dies in a sudden accident. With some bizarre theories of his own and a cryptic inheritance from his uncle, Lee decides to make it his goal to travel back in time and save her, a process that involves switching out his hands for metal ones and playing a magic video game. That he succeeds in jumping through history, and sometimes into cartoons, is indicative of what kind of world the movie inhabits. It’s certainly imaginative, but the multimedia approach isn’t as consistent or cohesive as in Two Rabbits. Keep an eye on cowriter-codirector Frant Gwo, though.

Vanishing Waves – This sci-fi head-trip from Lithuania was an early favorite of mine in the process. Meshing elements from the likes of Dreamscape and Inception, it sees a young scientist attempting to neurally enter the mind of a coma patient, about whom he has been told nothing. When his journeys into the mind not only succeed, but reveal a beautiful woman, he lies about the efficacy of the whole thing, pretending he has seen only the vaguest images. Meanwhile, in the dreamworld, he conducts an affair with his subject; and in the real world, uses unethical tactics to locate her and try to awaken her for real, even as his meddling threatens to unearth the trauma that her unconscious state is trying to bury. Excellent production values and a standout performance by Jurga Jutaite as immovable victim and movingly vulnerable dream girl – seriously, the acting she pulls off with just one eye in closeup is masterful (if it’s not CG) – make this one to catch, and one I think all of us hope gets a wider release.

Vegetarian Cannibal – The first of the films that I watched, and the one that made me go “WTF? This isn’t fantasy of any kind.” Sensationalized title aside, it’s a Croatian movie about a handsome a-hole of an obstetrician who lives like a rock star on his medical salary, because he makes extra cash by fudging details and altering records to make abortions appear to be medically necessary when they aren’t – all the better to make the accidental byproducts of his friends’ affairs go away, while convincing the mothers that a  miscarriage is coming anyway. Eventually this earns him the attention of the mob, who require his services to keep the uteruses of their hookers empty. And that’s pretty much it – the tension doesn’t really ramp up, and he just keeps doing what he’s doing. The lead actor, Rene Bitorajac, is great in the role, maintaining our interest even as he becomes clearly less and less likable; if he can speak English, the man has it made. But the story has very little momentum, and its central irony – that he’s a vegetarian – was already old back when Hitler was advocating a meatless diet.

The Warped Forest – My favorite film of this section and of the festival by far, this ten-years-in-the-making solo feature directorial debut of commercial director Shunichiro Miki depicts an alternate universe in which floating pyramids hover above a small forest town in which women can grow like trees, giant plush monsters can be eviscerated to reveal fluffy guts inside, acorns are currency, and the local fruits are best enjoyed as if they were human erogenous zones. Into this world, we follow three groups of three – sisters who seem to belong there, students who do not, and teachers who wish to manipulate their dreams. This may sound like weirdness for weirdness’ sake, and to those who don’t connect with the film, that does seem to be how it plays. But that attitude misses the deeper spiritual underpinnings, which suggests that life itself in the “real” world is the dream, one earned by strange karma in the magical realm that actually represents true existence. I suspect there’s more to be learned from multiple viewings, once you get past the initial shock humor of things like the penis gun.

The Warped Forest screening showcased one of the things I love most about the Alamo Drafthouse – since the movie revolves around exotic fruits, midway through, the theater’s servers delivered small glasses of exotic fruit juice to all attendees. I have no idea what the actual juice was, but was weird enough that it felt right. Similarly, during The ABCs of Death, we were given a beer (and instructed to shotgun it) and a small shot of alphabet soup. This attention to detail shows a love of every film that’s truly striking; if Alamo ever opens a branch in L.A., I’d be afraid for the fates of Cinefamily and the New Bev, which don’t have the resources to pull cool stunts like that.

Anyway… I was unable to convince my fellow jurors that The Warped Forest was a clear #1, but we all agreed relatively quickly that Vanishing Waves was high on everybody’s list – as such, it pretty much swept the category, with the exception being Rene Bitorajac in Vegetarian Cannibal for Best Actor, a choice on which there was literally no debate whatsoever (part of that may be due to these being primarily concept films rather than acting showcases). It’s safe to say that none of these selections sucked, but some were substantially better than others and I hope you’ll all get to see Vanishing Waves in short order.


And now, I know I’ve been skimping on the photos… so check out my own li’l Phantastic Photo Gallery, which may give you just a small sense. What struck me was that this was a smaller festival than I expected, but because it’s covered so thoroughly and has such a strong selection, it has a larger blogosphere imprint. Most of the press are from genre-specific blogs, with few of the “MSM” types I might see at LAFF or AFI. And it takes a while to get used to not having a concession stand as such – there’s no way to snack while waiting for the movie; just a proper meal awaiting, should you wish it, once the lights go down (if you feel like walking out of a bad movie, tough; you gotta wait for your check at the end. Thankfully there weren’t any that bad. Bathroom breaks may make you feel guilty though). I’m not sure enough can be said about the pluses of a festival owning its own venue, such that everyone who works there actually knows what’s going on; not to mention that most of the festgoers are regulars and behave themselves, so not only are there none of the security goons L.A. loves… there’s no need for them! Treat people well, and they act accordingly – what a concept!

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